Eyeing that donut? Your food choice may reveal struggle to resist temptation

Wondering what to order the next time you eat out? Pick wisely, as it may tell a lot about you. A study has recently revealed that people, who choose unhealthy food over healthy food in real time, had a lower self-control to resist temptation.

Researchers from Ohio State University in Columbus, USA watched in real time as people’s hands revealed the struggle they were under to choose the long-term goal over short-term temptation. But for those with higher levels of self-control, the path to the healthy food was more direct, indicating that they experienced less conflict.

The results of the study showed that those who chose the candy bar at the end of the experiment were those with lower self-control.

“Our hand movements reveal the process of exercising self-control,” said co-author of the study Paul Stillman.

“You can see the struggle as it happens. For those with low self-control, the temptation is actually drawing their hand closer to the less-healthy choice,” Stillman added.

The study involved 81 college students, who made 100 decisions involving healthy versus unhealthy food choices. In each trial, they clicked a “Start” button at the bottom of the screen. As soon as they did, two images appeared in the upper-left and upper-right corners of the screen, one a healthy food (such as Brussels sprouts) and the other an unhealthy one (such as a brownie).

For those with higher levels of self-control, the path to the healthy food was more direct, indicating that they experienced less conflict. (Shutterstock)

People who moved the cursor closer to the unhealthy treat (even when they ultimately made the healthy choice) later showed less self-control than did those who made a more direct path to the healthy snack. The results showed that those who chose the candy bar at the end of the experiment were those with lower self-control.

“The more they were pulled toward the temptation on the computer screen, the more they actually chose the temptations and failed at self-control,” Stillman noted. Those with lower levels of self-control had mouse trajectories that were clearly different from those with higher self-control, suggesting differences in how they were dealing with the decisions.

“This mouse-tracking metric could be a powerful new tool to investigate real-time conflict when people have to make decisions related to self-control,” he said. The findings also offer new evidence in a debate about how decision-making in self-control situations unfolds, Stillman said.

The research will appear in the journal Psychological Science.

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