Derailing the streetcar named desire. Cognitive distractions reduce individual differences in cravings and unhealthy snacking in response to palatable food
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People who are sensitive to food temptations are prone to weight gain and obesity in food-rich environments. Understanding the factors that drive their desire to eat is key to limiting their reactions to available food. This study tested whether individual differences in sensitivity to hedonic food cues are cognitively based and, accordingly, can be regulated by blocking cognitive resources. To this end, one lab study (study 1; N=91) and one field study (study 2; N=63) measured sensitivity to hedonic food cues using the Power of Food Scale (PFS; Lowe et al., 2009) and assessed participants’ appetitive responses to high-calorie food options. To test the role of cognitive elaboration of food cues, participants completed a menu-selection task to induce food cravings and then were free to elaborate those cravings (control group) or were blocked from doing so by cognitive distraction (solving puzzles, playing Tetris; experimental group). Compared to non-sensitive participants, sensitive participants displayed a greater attentional bias to high-calorie food (Study 1), reported stronger cravings (Study 2), and more often chose an unhealthy snack (Studies 1 & 2), but only when they had not been distracted. When distracted, all participants were similarly unresponsive to high-calorie food. This finding suggests that temptation can be effectively controlled by blocking people’s cognitive resources, even for people highly sensitive to hedonic food cues.
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