So often it’s our thoughts more than our feelings of desire that can undermine our attempts to eat less. These thoughts compel us towards the objects of our desires. The slightest hint of a suggestion that this desire might not be satisfied, and justifications come into play – those entirely reasonable lines of thinking that lead us right into the very behaviour we’re trying to control. These thoughts, of course, can be fleeting and hard to catch, and this makes them difficult to study. Here’s how one research group managed to do it.
Previous studies have shown that when a group of volunteers are offered a choice between cake and fruit salad, they are much more likely to choose the cake if they’ve just done some tough mental work. So, is this simply due to depleted energy resulting from the hard work?
In this study, the researchers gave one group the impression they had worked harder than another group who had in fact done exactly the same tasks. When snacks were offered, those who believed they had done twice as much work reported feeling more hungry and ate more than the other group, who had worked the same. (1)
What this shows is the presence of a thought process (and it’s nothing but a thought) that leads us to satisfy addictive desire. In this study, the line of reasoning could have been something like, “I’ve worked hard so I deserve a treat” or “I’m hungry after all that work and need to eat something”. Whatever the thinking was, it may well have gone unnoticed by the volunteers.
The researchers call this ‘self-licensing’, and it’s a form of problem solving, the way we justify overeating by talking ourselves into eating too much. You’ll find a wide variety in Chapter 9 of EATING LESS: Your Reasons Why.