New research finds that the act of imagining eating can actually make you feel less inclined to eat more. The finding may lead to more healthy diets and better treatment for addiction.
What happens when you get used to something? Scientists say you become habituated. Think about walking into a brightly lit room. After a few minutes, the lighting seems normal. Carnegie Mellon University researcher Carey Morewedge uses a food example.
"When you eat the first cookie, you're going to have a much stronger desire, and you're going to have a stronger physiological response to that cookie, than when you eat your fifth or your tenth," he says.
But what if, instead of eating those five or 10 cookies, you just imagined eating them. Would you become habituated, and maybe lose interest? Or would all that mental "eating" just stimulate your appetite?
To find out, Morewedge and his colleagues tried some experiments, asking people to imagine eating various quantities of chocolate. And, as a control, some were asked just to imagine moving the food around. Then, they were all offered real chocolates.
"Participants who imagined eating 30 chocolates, we found, ate fewer actual chocolates than participants who imagined eating three," he said. "Whether other participants imagined moving the chocolate or doing some kind of unrelated task didn't really affect how much they ate in the same way."
In case chocolate isn't your cup of tea, the researchers did similar experiments with cheese, and got similar results.
So just thinking about the food doesn't affect desire; thinking about eating it does.
This habituation happens very quickly, faster than the feedback we get from our digestive system that tells us to stop when we've eaten enough.
Morewedge says this isn't just a research finding; it potentially has real, practical application.
"Habituation happens so quickly that it could be used to help people regulate their food intake and perhaps help us develop behavioral interventions to reduce the intake of unhealthy foods that we start eating, and help us reduce our cravings for those foods so we can make healthier food choices beforehand."
And not just food. Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Carey Morewedge says the same approach might work to help people reduce their use of cigarettes, alcohol, or illegal drugs.
Morewedge describes his experiments and the results in the journal Science.