Think about your kitchen counter. Ignore the stack of papers by the light switch, and pay no mind to the food crumbs left over from your breakfast this morning. Instead, there exists a spot which, if you’re like many people, is devoted to a very particular kind of snack. This spot is your own personal shrine to sweetness. What’s occupying that spot right now? A plate of peanut butter cookies? Or maybe a box of chocolate-covered pretzels? If you share Ronald Reagan’s well-known affinity for bean-shaped foods, it might be a jar of jelly bellies. Regardless of what kind of snack occupies this place, you no doubt are all too aware of the consequences of the existence of this spot. Too frequently, it seems, you mindlessly reach out for a dose of sugar, blithely overlooking all intentions to the contrary, and foiling your well-planned diet.
Despite our best intentions and valiant efforts, it seems like we’re programmed to consume calorie-dense, nutritionally-empty foods. Fortunately, research psychologists have been working out how we can reprogram ourselves, and a recent paper suggests one strategy that may be effective. Writing in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers from Swansea University and City University London present the results of an experiment in which individuals who resisted sweets by using mindfulness — a purposeful way of paying attention to the present moment —consumed less of them.
In the experiment, the researchers recruited participants who responded to ads for individuals looking to reduce their chocolate consumption. These participants were then randomly assigned into one of three strategy groups: cognitive “defusion,” acceptance, or control. In each group, participants were given a rationale for their strategy, details of the strategy, and instructions for how to use the strategy.
For cognitive “defusion,” a term which means to change one’s relationship with one’s thoughts, participants were instructed to view one’s self as different from one’s thoughts. They were given a strategy often used by mindfulness practitioners — the “mindbus” metaphor. An individual can be seen as the driver of a bus, and thoughts as the passengers. They were then given a bag of chocolate to carry around with them at all times over the next five days, and instructed to think of the mindbus whenever they were tempted to eat a chocolate.
In the acceptance group, participants were told that an effective way of dealing with food cravings was to simply accept these uncomfortable feelings, rather than spending effort trying to control them. They were told about “urge surfing,” in which participants were told to try acknowledge and ride out the urges, rather than controlling or giving in to them.
The control group was told that relaxing was a good strategy to deal with cravings. The strategy section for this group outlined a relaxation technique which involved contracting and relaxing certain sets of muscles.
In addition to all participants being given a bag of chocolates, the researchers wanted to account for any chocolate the participants may have eaten which did not come out of the bag. For this reason, all participants were also given a “chocolate diary,” in which they were told to record all other chocolate consumption. After 5 days, all participants returned to the lab, where the experimenters counted the chocolate remaining in the bag, and entered all consumption incidents recorded in the diary. This gave the researchers two separate measurements of how much chocolate each participant ate – the amount out of the bag, and the amount recorded in the diary.
When compared to the control group, participants in the cognitive defusion group ate significantly less chocolate from the bag than would be expected by chance. What about the data from the diary? Did participants in the cognitive defusion group also record less chocolate in the diary? Although the raw numbers from the diary are consistent with the results from the bagged chocolate (13g versus 37g for the control group) this comparison fell just short of the usual statistical bar for scientific studies (the “p-value” which is related to how likely a finding is consistent with pure chance, was .053, while the usual cutoff is .05 or less). However, because it was very close, the researchers, in keeping with general practices in science, thus interpret the diary data as somewhat weaker evidence that the mindfulness strategy worked.
If this leaves you wondering what the take-away point is of all this, then maybe you can see how scientists sometimes disagree over what results say. Science is a messy process, and this paper is a fine example of that. In this particular study, the weight of all the evidence seems to suggest that a mindfulness strategy is effective in reducing chocolate consumption over the course of five days. However, there are still plenty of questions left unanswered. For example, what is it about mindfulness that led participants in that condition to be more successful than those in the control condition? The authors suggest that it may have something to do with the idea that we often consume chocolate and other sweets in a relatively automatic fashion, absent-mindedly grabbing a cookie as we walk past the shrine to sweetness in our kitchen. Mindfulness, according to the authors, effectively disrupts this type of automatic behavior.
In short, if you’re looking to reprogram yourself to eat fewer sweets, it seems like being mindful of the experience of the present situation could help you out. With such a strategy, instead of our thoughts driving us first to the kitchen and then to the jar of jelly bellies, we might instead see those thoughts as passengers on the bus that we are driving. This way, instead of munching a handful of jelly bellies, we can drive ourselves away from the kitchen, and closer to our goals for personal health.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.