Turning a blind eye to temptation: how cognitive load can facilitate self-regulation

Van Dillen, L. F., Papies, E. K. and Hofmann, W. (2013) Turning a blind eye to temptation: how cognitive load can facilitate self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(3), pp. 427-443. (doi:10.1037/a0031262) (PMID:23276276)

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The present research shows in 4 studies that cognitive load can reduce the impact of temptations on cognition and behavior and, thus, challenges the proposition that distraction always hampers self-regulation. Participants performed different speeded categorization tasks with pictures of attractive and neutral food items (Studies 1–3) and attractive and unattractive female faces (Study 4), while we assessed their reaction times as an indicator of selective attention (Studies 1, 3, and 4) or as an indicator of hedonic thoughts about food (Study 2). Cognitive load was manipulated by a concurrent digit span task. Results show that participants displayed greater attention to tempting stimuli (Studies 1, 3, and 4) and activated hedonic thoughts in response to palatable food (Study 2), but high cognitive load completely eliminated these effects. Moreover, cognitive load during the exposure to attractive food reduced food cravings (Study 1) and increased healthy food choices (Study 3). Finally, individual differences in sensitivity to food temptations (Study 3) and interest in alternative relationship partners (Study 4) predicted selective attention to attractive stimuli, but again, only when cognitive load was low. Our findings suggest that recognizing the tempting value of attractive stimuli in our living environment requires cognitive resources. This has the important implication that, contrary to traditional views, performing a concurrent demanding task may actually diminish the captivating power of temptation and thus facilitate self-regulation.

Item Type:Articles
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Papies, Dr Esther
Authors: Van Dillen, L. F., Papies, E. K., and Hofmann, W.
College/School:College of Science and Engineering > School of Psychology
Journal Name:Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
Publisher:American Psychological Association
ISSN (Online):1939-1315

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