The study looks at the relationship between the concepts of mental imagery (imagining doing things) and habituation (getting used to things). Through mental imagery, imagining things can affect your body and your emotions just as much as the real thing: just thinking about a spider crawling on your neck can lead to the same feeling of tingling and fear as if it was actually happening. The second concept, habituation, refers to the decrease in your body and your mind’s response to a stimulus. For example, your tenth bite of stuffing is not nearly as satisfying as your first. Given these two principles, the researchers asked if you could habituate to a food just by imagining eating it.
The participants in the study were divided into two groups and each group was asked to imagine doing a task. The first group was asked to picture eating 30 M&M’s, one at a time. The second group was asked to picture putting 30 quarters into a laundry machine, one at a time. After this mental imagery task, the participants were each put in front of a bowl of M&M’s and told to eat as much as they wanted as a preparation for a “taste test” later on (obviously, the taste test is fake, it’s just an excuse to get the participants to eat). The researchers then weighed the leftover M&M’s and measured how much each participant had eaten. They found that those who pictured eating M&M’s ate significantly less candies than those who pictured feeding a laundry machine!
The researchers then compared participants who imagined eating only three M&M’s with participants who imagined eating 30. They found that participants who imagined eating more M&M’s ended up actually eating fewer of the real ones. This means that habituation (doing something repeatedly) is key to observe an effect of mental imagery.
So whether your drug of choice is M&M’s, stuffing or cheese balls, you may be able to minimize the holiday damage by doing a little mental exercise. Now if only I could just picture purchasing and wrapping a bunch of presents…
Reference: Thought for food: imagined consumption reduces actual consumption. (2010) Morewedge CL et al. Science 330:1530-1533.