As a child I held a growing concern about my father’s health – particularly his pack-a-day cigarette habit. I would learn something awful about lung cancer or emphysema, and armed with that info I would try to use 8-year-old logic on a man who was committed to his habitual love of cigarettes. One particular time, I had read something about how if one was to make cigarette smoking uncomfortable, or awkward, that the smoker would be far less inclined to smoke (wishful thinking). I remember asking my father to start smoking cigarettes with his left hand instead of his right. He humored me, smoked about half of the cigarette with his left hand, took one long drag, and then switched hands and stubbed it out with his right. That was the one and only time I saw him switch his smoking habit until his doctor scared him enough that he quit smoking a few decades later.
While this experiment of mine failed miserably, it seemed to make sense that if you engaged in something habitually that making that engagement purposefully awkward would likely change the habit. Whether it was smoking, picking your nose, eating, what have you, using your non-dominant hand in this habitual activity might, at least moderately, impact the frequency of that habitual act. A new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, makes the case that, in the case of habitual eating, the use of your non-dominant hand will make you more aware of what you are eating and may even help you eat less.
The study was conducted by researchers at USC used test subjects, a movie theater, and a selection of fresh and stale popcorn: one group received freshly popped popcorn; the other got stale week-old popcorn. The group who said that they habitually consume popcorn while at the movies consumed the stale popcorn with aplomb – paying no mind to the staleness of the popcorn. When researchers conducted the same experiment, not in a movie theater, but a meeting room, the test subjects largely rejected the stale popcorn.
The study’s lead author had this to say about the results:
“”When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and make us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present. People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn. But once we’ve formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good. We’ll eat exactly the same amount, whether it’s fresh or stale.”
When you take a look around America, with its food malls, drive-thru culture, and one-fisted mode of eating, it is difficult not to view much of the obesity problem as, not being about too much of a good thing, but too much of a habitual thing. Maybe we are being far too permissive about allowing our brains to switch onto autopilot and loading our gullets with what feels “right” instead of what tastes or is right. Does any of this ring true for any of you? Do you have habitual behaviors, especially around food and drink, which have ceased to bring you any qualitative pleasure but are just feeding your habitual brain?