Positive Self-Image Can Inspire, or Inhibit, Overeating

Thinking ahead to an altruistic deed we plan to do may dampen our desire for fattening foods.
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(Photo: Neil Lockhart/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Neil Lockhart/Shutterstock)

Having trouble resisting that box of donuts sitting on the break-room table? Swiss researchers have proposed a creative coping strategy that has nothing to do with willpower.

Think ahead to an altruistic action you are planning to carry out sometime in the future. There’s a decent chance your craving will disappear.

But whatever you do, don’t let your mind drift back to a recent memory of doing a good deed. That’ll give you license to indulge.

People who wrote a brief essay recalling a time they performed an altruistic act were more likely to choose an unhealthy snack than people who wrote about a time they acted in an egotistical way.

That’s the conclusion of University of Bern researchers Christian Weibel, Claude Messner and Adrian Brugger. They report that the insidious self-justification impulseI’ve done something good, so it’s now OK to do something bad—is as strong as we’ve suspected.

But they also suggest it may be effectively circumvented by shifting your focus to the future.

“These results open up new possibilities in promotion of healthy eating,” the researchers write in the journal Appetite. They also provide new evidence that we think of eating in moral terms. As a result, self-indulgence is more acceptable before or after certain ethical behaviors having nothing to do with health or nutrition.

They describe two experiments, the first of which confirms previous research that good behavior gives us license to indulge. It found people who wrote a brief essay recalling a time they performed an altruistic act were more likely to choose an unhealthy snack than people who wrote about a time they acted in an egotistical way.

The second experiment looked at the impact of our intentions, as opposed to our past actions. Citing previous research on the impact of setting goals, the researchers reasoned that people would behave in ways that are consistent with the planned positive behavior.

The 106 participants, recruited on a university campus, “were asked to imagine and write about either an intended egoistic or altruistic action that they planned to carry out in the future.” Afterwards, they were instructed to choose between healthy and unhealthy food options. Specifically, they picked either an apple or candy bar; mineral water vs. a Coke; vegetable dip vs. chips; and cookies vs. whole wheat crackers.

The results: People who thought ahead to engaging in a selfless act chose the healthy food options more often than those who envisioned acting selfishly.

The researchers concede the impact of the intended action was marginal. Their findings cannot be called definitive. But, as they note, these results point to a possible “win-win situation,” since they suggest that “more behavioral intentions go hand in hand with healthy food choices.”

It’s certainly worth a try. After all, if you’re envisioning yourself as a good person, you want to behave in a congruent way.

Heroes don’t pig out on Ho Hos.

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