When you face temptation in the form of a pizza or a piece of chocolate cake, just look at it and your overwhelming desire will fade away.
A new study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, published in Science, shows that when you imagine eating a certain food, it reduces your actual consumption of that food.
The CMU research team tested the effects of repeatedly imagining the consumption of a food on its actual consumption.
"These findings suggest that trying to suppress one's thoughts of desired foods in order to curb cravings for those foods is a fundamentally flawed strategy," said Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences.
"Our studies found that instead, people who repeatedly imagined the consumption of a morsel of food - such as an M and M or cube of cheese - subsequently consumed less of that food than did people who imagined consuming the food a few times or performed a different but similarly engaging task.
"We think these findings will help develop future interventions to reduce cravings for things such as unhealthy food, drugs and cigarettes, and hope they will help us learn how to help people make healthier food choices," she added.
A control group imagined inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine (an action similar to eating M and M's). Another group imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 3 M and M'S, while a third group imagined inserting three quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 30 M and M'S. Next, all participants ate freely from a bowl filled with M and M'S.
Participants who imagined eating 30 M and M'S actually ate significantly fewer M and M'S than did participants in the other two groups.
Results also showed that the reduction in actual consumption following imagined consumption was due to habituation - a gradual reduction in motivation to eat more of the food - rather than alternative psychological processes such as priming or a change in the perception of the food's taste.
"Habituation is one of the fundamental processes that determine how much we consume of a food or a product, when to stop consuming it, and when to switch to consuming another food or product," Joachim Vosgerau said.
"To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience. The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed."
Other implications of this research include the discovery that mental imagery can enact habituation in the absence of pre-ingestive sensory stimulation and that repeatedly stimulating an action can trigger its behavioural consequences.