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Morbid Thoughts Influence Food Choices

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Thinking about our own deaths influences our eating patterns in both predictable and surprising ways, according to two new studies that examine different aspects of this psychological phenomenon.

A paper in the June 2008 Journal of Consumer Research describes a series of experiments in which participants wrote essays about either their own death or a painful but non-lethal medical procedure. They then checked off items on a grocery list or ate cookies.

Those with death on their minds both ate more cookies and checked off more foods for intended purchase on their next trip to the store.

“People want to consume more of all kinds of foods, both healthy and unhealthy, when thinking about the idea they will die some day,” conclude authors Naomi Mandel of Arizona State University and Dirk Smeesters of Erasmus University Rotterdam. They add that those with low self-esteem are particularly likely to overindulge following death-related thoughts.

In an unrelated study reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, citizens of Switzerland were similarly asked to think about either their own deaths or a painful dental procedure. They then sampled chocolates and soft drinks from both their home country and foreign lands.

The results: Those with death on their minds were far more likely to express preference for their local products. It appears the thought of our own mortality brings out a yearning for familiar tastes, which presumably provide a certain level of needed comfort.

Researchers Malte Friese of the University of Basel, Switzerland and Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Wurzburg, Germany also report that total chocolate consumption was higher for those who had thought about their deaths — a finding that will surprise no one who wakes up anxious and heads for the Häagen-Dazs.

These troubling findings provide yet another reason why losing weight is so difficult for so many. One would hope that thoughts of our own death would snap us into shape and reinforce our determination to eat in a modest and healthy way, but the opposite — perhaps informed by the idea that it's ultimately all for nought — appears to be true.

There is one bit of hope in the Journal of Consumer Research study, however. The researchers report that placing a mirror in front of participants reduced the desire to overeat. Perhaps a health-conscious company can come up with full-length mirrors for refrigerator doors.