Thought For Food: Eating Less by Thinking More

man thinking of food

The Psychology of Hunger

Daniel Kahneman might be the most accomplished psychologist alive. His papers have beenreferenced more than 75,000 times, and he’s considered the largest contributor in the psychology of judgment. His work was so important that he was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, despite not having a specialty in the field. The most important meme in his work is the study of two cognitive habits: biases and heuristics.

bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment in certain situations. For example, the tendency to prefer present consumption over future consumption often leaves us spending and eating more than we might deem “rational” if we want to maximize our welfare over long periods of time. A bias is what happens when the circumstances around us change faster than our brains can adapt.

heuristic is a simple rule we unconsciously use to make decisions. Heuristics are often acquired through experience, and aid in fast decision making. Heuristics are useful when they allow us to decipher large amounts of information accurately. However, heuristics are imprecise and occur through trial and error. Their convenience sometimes gets in the way of the best decision.

Familiar Food = Less Hunger

Recently, Kahneman wrote about why food made by others often tastes better:

When you make your own sandwich, you anticipate its taste as you’re working on it. And when you think of a particular food for a while, you become less hungry for it later. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, found that imagining eating M&Ms makes you eat fewer of them. It’s a kind of specific satiation, just as most people find room for dessert when they couldn’t have another bite of their steak. The sandwich that another person prepares is not “preconsumed” in the same way.

The concept he’s referring to is called habituation, which is the process by which people respond to something less the more they think about it. It’s why presents are exciting, the thought of a new lover is more exotic than our spouse….and why we eat less the more we think about food.

In the paper he’s referring to, it was found that people frequently ate less when they thought about their meal beforehand:

Five experiments showed that people who repeatedly imagined eating a food (such as cheese) many times subsequently consumed less of the imagined food than did people who repeatedly imagined eating thatfood fewer times, imagined eating a different food (such as candy), or did not imagine eating a food. They did so because they desired to eat it less, not because they considered it less palatable. These results suggest that mental representation alone can engender habituation to a stimulus.

Thinking More, Eating Less

Thinking out loud, I wonder if this phenomenon contributes to the finding that people who spend more time eating their food and/or eat the same foods day after day tend to consume less than people that don’t.

Keep in mind that these findings refer to people who thought of a particular food (like a Snickers bar or Macaroni and cheese) but not a meal in the abstract (like thinking “I’m so hungry for dinner!”).

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