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New Weapons in the War Between Willpower and Willy Wonka

Research suggests certain mental games may help chocolate lovers resist the temptation to overindulge.
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Wilhelm Hofmann, like a lot of us, finds certain varieties of fine chocolate virtually irresistible. But the German psychologist, along with colleagues from the Netherlands and the United States, has discovered a creative way of decreasing the temptation to indulge.

Simply gaze at the delectable confection and think to yourself:

Wouldn't this make an excellent doorstop?

In two studies, "participants instructed to imagine a chocolate in a nonconsummatory manner exhibited significantly less automatic positivity with regard to the product," researchers report in the European Journal of Social Psychology. This suggests certain self-control strategies can affect the "impulsive, automatic pathways of behavior determination" that too often lead us to give into temptation.

The studies — one conducted in a laboratory, another via the Internet — are part of Hofmann's ongoing research on impulsivity and self-control. In an earlier paper, the University of Wurzberg assistant professor noted that many people "are torn between their long-term goals to restrain behavior and their immediate impulses that promote hedonic fulfillment." His work helps explain these competing forces and describes under what circumstances self-control is more likely to succeed.

For his most recent paper, Hofmann focuses on a popular German chocolate product marketed as "the white temptation." He describes the dessert in mouth-watering detail, noting "the chocolate has a spherical shape and can be described as a delicious composition of almonds and smooth milk crème surrounded by a crispy waffle and a fine white coconut coating."

Who could resist something so scrumptious? That was what he and his colleagues tried to ascertain in their first study. Seventy-one undergraduates from the University of Landau were shown samples of the candy and then assigned to one of three groups.

Those in the first group were asked to spend three minutes imagining how the chocolate would taste and feel in their mouths.

In contrast, those in the second group "were asked to imagine, as clearly and concretely as possible, odd or novel settings or uses for the chocolate." Those in the third group (the control group) read an unrelated text about South America.

Afterwards, an Implicit Association Test was used to measure the participants' automatic, impulsive evaluations of the chocolate. To conclude the study, participants offered their explicit opinions, rating the candy in terms of taste and overall enjoyment.

The results: Both the automatic and conscious evaluations of the chocolate were lower among those who were instructed to come up with creative uses for the product.

The second test, conducted via the Internet, featured 506 people, average age 35. While some participants duplicated the first study, others were instructed to visualize times and places where they would be tempted to indulge and then form a "clear intention on how to avoid eating the chocolate in these particular situations."

Once again, those who "cognitively transformed" the chocolate displayed less automatic positivity toward the palate-pleasing product. But the largest reduction in automatic positivity occurred among those who had visualized themselves saying "No thanks."

The researchers call these results encouraging, noting they suggest two different mental self-control strategies may be useful in fighting temptation. Of course, they only measured the short-term impact of these strategies; it's impossible to say how long they might continue to work.

Nevertheless, before accepting offers of Halloween candy or Christmas cookies during the upcoming holidays, it might be worth taking a moment to think of these sweets in a different way. This research suggests a tempting treat loses some of its allure when you've pondered its usefulness as a garden tool.

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