|Imagine you are the driver & your chocolate cravings are unruly passengers
If someone gave you a bag of 14 chocolates to carry around for five days, would you be able to resist eating them and any other chocolate? That was the challenge faced by 135 undergrads in a new study that compared the effectiveness of two different “mindfulness” resistance techniques.
Kim Jenkins and Katy Tapper taught 45 of their participants “cognitive defusion”, the essence being that “you are not your thoughts”. The students were told to imagine that they are the driver of a mindbus and any difficult thoughts about chocolate are to be seen as awkward passengers. The students chose a specific method for dealing with these difficult thoughts/passengers and practised it for five minutes – either describing them, letting them know who is in charge, making them talk with a different accent, or singing what they are saying.
Another group of students were taught an acceptance technique known as “urge surfing”. They were instructed to ride the wave of their chocolate cravings, rather than to sink them or give in to them. A final group of students acted as controls and were taught a relaxation technique.
As well as trying to resist the bag of chocolates, the students in all conditions were asked to avoid eating any other chocolate as far as possible, and to keep a diary of any chocolate they did eat over the five days.
The key finding is that the mindbus group ate fewer chocolates from their bag as compared with students in the control group. By contrast, the urge surfing group ate just as many of their chocolates as the controls. Diary records showed the differences between groups in their other chocolate consumption were not statistically significant, although there was a trend for the mindbus group to eat less (13g vs. 52g in the urge surfing group and 44g in the control condition). Another way of describing the results is to say that 27 per cent of the mindbus group ate some chocolate over the five-day period, compared with 45 per cent of the urge surfers and 45 per cent of controls.
A habits questionnaire suggested the mindbus technique was more effective because it reduced the students’ mindless, automatic consumption of chocolate more than the other interventions. Jenkins and Tapper said their results show the mindbus “cognitive defusion” technique is a “promising brief intervention strategy” for boosting self-control over an extended time period.
The serious chocaholics among you may not be so convinced. Although the students were recruited on the basis that they wanted to reduce their chocolate consumption, they appeared to show saintly levels of abstinence. On average, even the control group participants ate just 0.69 chocolates from their bag over the five day period (compared with an average of 0.02 chocolates in the mindbus condition; 0.27 in the urge surfing condition). The controls’ other chocolate consumption amounted to the equivalent of little more than four individual chocolates over five days. You’ve got to wonder – how serious were these participants about chocolate and just how tasty were the chocolates in that bag*?
Another thing – the researchers included a measure of “behavioural rebound”. After the students returned to the lab on day five, they were presented with a bowl of chocolates and invited to eat as many as they liked. The groups didn’t differ in the amount of chocolates they consumed, which the researchers interpreted as a good sign – after all, the mindbus group hadn’t compensated for their restricted intake during the week. But hang on, they also showed no evidence of greater resistance to the chocolate. Sounds to me like the passengers had taken over the bus.
Jenkins, K., and Tapper, K. (2013). Resisting chocolate temptation using a brief mindfulness strategy. British Journal of Health Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjhp.12050
*Co-author Katy Tapper got in touch on Twitter to tell us: “The chocolates were very tempting Cadbury’s Celebrations!”
Video of the mindbus technique.
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Good news and bad for a popular willpower-enhancing strategy
The first detailed study of daily temptation and resistance
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.