As your grandmother always said: “don’t go shopping when you’re hungry” because you’re probably more likely to head for the potato chips than the carrots. Of course, we can’t always control the circumstances that surround our weekly grocery shop, but is there any truth to this adage?
Apparently, yes. A new study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, found that junk food has the ability to distract us – even when we don’t know it. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University investigated whether people have a bias for fatty, sugary foods.
“We wanted to see if pictures of food, particularly high-fat, high-calorie food, would be a distraction for people engaged in a complicated task”, said co-author Howard Egeth, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
“So, we showed them carrots and apples, and it slowed them down. We showed them bicycles and thumbtacks, and it slowed them down. But when we showed them chocolate cake and hot dogs, these things slowed them down about twice as much.”
Egeth and lead author Corbin A. Cunningham, Distinguished Science of Learning Fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences created a complicated computer task with no relevance to food and asked participants to complete it as quickly as possible.
During the task pictures of junk foods, healthy foods and non-foods flashed on the screen for 125 milliseconds. Although all these images distracted people from the task, images of donuts, cheese, candy and potato chips were twice as distracting and the healthy foods were no more distracting than the non-foods.
The next experiment saw a new group of people eat two fun-sized candy bars before starting the computer work. The researchers found that after eating the chocolate, the participants weren’t any more distracted by the high-fat, high-calorie foods as they were the healthy foods and non-foods.
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The researchers were surprised by the result and wondered if other snacks would have the same effect. “I assume it was because it was a delicious, high-fat, chocolatey snack,” Egeth said.
“But what if we gave them an apple? What if we gave them a zero-calorie soda? What if we told the subjects they’d get money if they performed the task quickly, which would be a real incentive not to get distracted. Could junk food pictures override even that?”
So perhaps a nibble on a cookie before you head to the grocery store will help you save money on the unhealthy foods.
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