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July 18, 2012

3 surprising insights on how food cravings relate to other desires in everyday life

What is harder to resist? Checking your Twitter or Facebook account at work or eating a delicious, but fattening snack when you try to watch your calories? Both are inner conflicts, best described as 'I really want to do this, but I should not'.

In many food studies it is assumed that people have conflicting feelings when being confronted with tempting foods. But is that really the case in everyday life? What type of cravings are felt most strongly? And if people do crave foods, how often are they trying to resist their desire?

Wilhelm Hofmann, Kathlees Vohs and Roy Baummeister recently tried to answer these questions in their Everyday Temptation Study. They gave BlackBerrys to 205 participants and contacted them on 7 random times per day for one week. When they were contacted, they had to indicate what type of desire they experienced within the last 30 minutes, how conflicted they felt about this desire, whether they tried to resist the desire and how successful they were in this. The study included all types of everyday desires, including the desire to eat, drink, have sex, sleep, spend money and use media (such as social media). Here are 3 insights that I found most surprising.

1)   Food is not the hardest desire to resist
People feel some desire about half the time they are awake. In hours, this is about eight hours a day. Almost half of those desires are conflicting at least somewhat with other goals in life.
Interestingly, food is not the hardest desire to resist. It is much more difficult to fight the desire for sleep and fun leisure activitities (such as checking Facebook). These two were considered to be the hardest to resist. Only 23% of all conflicting desires go against some health goals (for example healthy eating or exercise). The majority of reported inner conflicts were related to goals such as saving money, achievements at work or study, social appearance and efficient time use.

In other words, it is harder to resist impulses to spend money, participate in sports, use (social) media and smoke than it is to resist eating.

2)   We spend three hours a day resisting desires
The majority of desires in everyday life are not resisted. We have to eat anyway, so why trying to resist it? When people do try to resist them, they are quite successful in it; in 83% of all inner conflicts, they succeed to not give in. Still, in 17% of all occasions, people do give in. They particularly fail to resist checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter of other social media when they do not want to do that.

3)   Stop resisting the numerous cravings throughout a day
Besides that we spend about three hours per day resisting desires, we also spend half an hour giving in to desires that we initially resisted. The more often you try to resist a desire, the less willpower is left at the end of the day and the more likely it is that you go for the 'forbidden' food. This confirms the 'muscle model' of willpower, which states that willpower is like a muscle that needs refuel.

So, do not replete your willpower, stop reading this blog post and go back to work.

What is harder to resist; Twitter and Facebook at work or the temptation of an unhealthy snack?

Hofmann W, Baumeister RF, Förster G, & Vohs KD (2012). Everyday temptations: an experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102 (6), 1318-35 PMID: 22149456

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