Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

the diet dilemma

Ever tried to diet? Ever had that time when you tried to control everything you eat but as soon as the day passes by your soul just drains away by that effortful resistance to unhealthy food? That at the end you just gave up all the effort you put into the diet plan and straight away you munched through that big bag of crisps (intended for sharing!) you had tucked in the kitchen cupboard. Been there, done that. Unfortunately, even empirical research has demonstrated the limited success of increasing self-control over unhealthy food choices (Herman & Polivy, 2011).

Previous research has concentrated on the idea that high-self control leads to better decision-making e.g. healthy eating, better academic performance (de Ridder, Lensvelt-Mulders, Finkenauer, Stok & Baumeister, 2012; Tangney, Baumeister & Boone, 2004). Apparently this happens by using up limited resource that you have e.g. energy. However, once your resources are depleted, your self-control decreases and decisions tend to be more impulsive.

Consider this. Its late night and you just got off from a long day of work. Knowing that you need to be up really early the next day, you passed by a gigantic McDonalds advert. Suddenly, there’s an orchestra in your stomach. You know you need to eat something. Big Mac versus a homemade bowl of green salad; it’s a no-brainer. We all know Big Mac isn’t as healthy as green salad, yet we still choose the former. Why? Cause it just tastes better, and takes a lot of hassle out of it! Albeit, research has demonstrated that it’s not time to give up on healthy eating just yet.

Salmon, Fennis, de Ridder, Adriaanse and de Vet (2014) manipulated three different factors in their study on healthy food choices. First was the amount of self-control: high vs. low. Secondly, they looked at the effect of an external influence. In this case, the principle of social proof – influence of majority on decision-making (Cialdini, 2009). Last was trade-off choice vs. control choice. In groups with trade-off choices, an example would be healthy but less tasty food vs. unhealthy but very tasty food; whereas in groups with control choice there was no trade-off e.g. healthy food vs. unhealthy food.

In line with previous research, they found that people with low self-control made more unhealthy food choices than people with high self-control, in the absence of external influence. However, participants with low self-control but exposed to external influence (to choose healthy food) ended up making more healthy choice as compared to no external influence, even when there is a trade-off (figure 2).

Overall, regardless of the group participant was in, there was still high number of choices involving unhealthy food. This implicates even people with high self-control are vulnerable to unhealthy food choices. Perhaps what we could take away from this is that at times when we feel our willingness to control our diet is quite low, a little bit of external influence towards the healthy side might just do the trick. Healthy eating starts from buying the right kind of food. Buying the right kind of food starts from making the right kinds of decision – with the right kind of influence could effectively help you make the right decision. Before, we were tied to the fact that healthy eating is effortful. Now we know that it could be an easy and automatic one.

Nadhir Anuar. 


Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
de Ridder, D. T. D., Lensvelt-Mulders, G., Finkenauer, C., Stok, F. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Taking stock of self-control: A meta-analysis of how trait self-control relates to a wide range of behaviors. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 76–99.
Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (2011). The self-regulation of eating: Theoretical and practical problems. In K. D. Vohs & R. F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory and applications (pp. 522–536). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Salmon, S. J., Fennis, B. M., de Ridder, Denise T. D., Adriaanse, M. A., & de Vet, E. (2014). Health on impulse: When low self-control promotes healthy food choices. Health Psychology, 33(2), 103-109.
Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F., & Boone, A. L. (2004). High self-control predicts good adjustment, less pathology, better grades, and interpersonal success. Journal of Personality, 72, 271–324.

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