Have Trouble Ignoring Cravings? Science Says This Could Be Why
Have you ever wondered why it's easy to say no to unhealthy food or behaviors in one moment and then more difficult the next? A study published in the journal Psychological Science, says it might be because you're trying to do too many things at once.
According to the researchers—a group of psychologists from the University of New South Wales Sydney—we already know it's hard for us to ignore signals with a large reward (like some tasty potato chips, for example), but this study shows that it becomes even more difficult when we're asked to perform a task while also being tempted. Apparently, we have a certain amount of control resources that are meant to help us say no to temptation. But when those resources become taxed, we find it close to impossible to ignore rewarding signals. Pretty relatable, isn't it?
If you're wondering how they figured this out, the researchers created a screen with various shapes—squares, circles, diamonds, triangles all included—and one colorful circle. Then, they recruited participants and told them if they sat in front of the screen and were able to locate and look at the diamond—and ignore the colorful circle, which acted as the "rewarding" distractor—they would earn money. They did a pretty good job focusing on the diamond and ignoring the distractor.
Pretty simple, right? Not so fast. Next, the participants were asked to do this task a second time after memorizing a set of numbers, which meant they had less of that control resource to go around. The researchers tracked their eye movements and found under "high memory load," participants looked at the colored circle about 50% of the time even though it meant less money for them to take home.
So how does this apply to us and our healthy lifestyle habits? If we're being asked to do a million things at once—which let's be honest, so many of us are—we have no control resource available to ignore temptation and make the best decisions for our health.
This might feel like bad news, but the results of this study are actually encouraging to researchers. Before this study was published, scientists weren't sure if we had a say over this lack of self-control at all. This research proves that our executive control mechanisms are in charge of our ability to ignore unwanted signals of reward but that we only have a finite amount of this resource, so we better use it wisely. In the future, researchers could use this knowledge to help people struggling with addictions of all kinds, including those to food and substances like tobacco and alcohol.