It was around 5.30pm on Easter Sunday, and I’d just finished eating a delicious rib-eye steak that my dad had lovingly grilled on the BBQ. My thoughts should have been on the joys of family unity and the fortune of having yet another satisfying and nutritious meal.
My attention was entirely focussed on the enormous chocolate egg with – quite literally – my name on it. My mum had presented it to me earlier in the day and I had put it to one side thinking I’d perhaps enjoy some of it later.
Immediately after finishing my meal, however, I saw the egg. Like the Death Star, it pulled me in. Within seconds it was out of the box, broken into bite-sized pieces, and placed in a bowl positioned right in front of me. I reluctantly offered some to my dad (which he enthusiastically accepted), but I more or less devoured the entire thing.
Most of you, I’m sure, have been there. We don’t always plan to eat that one biscuit or mouthful of cake or chunk of Easter egg. We certainly don’t plan to inhale the lot. In fact, we often plan not to. But, as Jack Reacher once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Let’s unpick what’s happening here. Because if we can understand the mechanisms at play, we can become a participant, rather than a spectator, in our food choices. Hint: It has very little, if anything, to do with willpower.
First of all, let’s be honest. Chocolate and biscuits and cakes are delicious. They have the perfect combination of fats and carbohydrates that our brains find irresistible. So, it doesn’t take much to induce a feeding frenzy. However, there is more to it than that.
According to the Fogg Behaviour Model, any behaviour (good, bad, or otherwise) happens when three things come together at the same time:
- Motivation (we want to do it)
- Ability (we can do it)
- A prompt (we’re reminded to do it)
If any one of these things isn’t present, the behaviour won’t happen.
A prompt is binary – it either happens or it doesn’t. But motivation and ability are continuous variables. If our motivation to do a behaviour is high, and the behaviour is easy to do, when we are prompted the behaviour is very likely to happen.
Think about this in the context of my Easter egg binge. I was prompted by seeing it (and also possibly by a post-meal sweet craving). I was highly intrinsically motivated to eat it (because chocolate is a very rewarding food). And it was relatively easy to eat the first piece – all I had to do was pick it up, unwrap it, and break a piece off. And, as we now know, I did indeed eat a piece.
I then made finishing the whole egg pretty much an inevitability. That first mouthful felt really good and increased my motivation to eat more. It was now in bite-sized chunks right in front of me, giving me a prompt I couldn’t ignore and making eating it practically effortless. And, sure enough, it was all gone in a minute or two.
The question is, how can we avoid falling into this familiar – and inescapable – trap? Well, now that we understand how behaviour works, we can manipulate it. To avoid eating some – or all – of the chocolate egg I could have done one of the following:
- Reduced my motivation (by using willpower)
- Removed the prompt (or made it less obvious)
- Made it harder to do
My motivation to eat chocolate (and similarly rewarding foods) is baked into my evolutionary wiring. I can’t change that and it’s very difficult to overcome with willpower. I may have been able to stop myself, but for how long? Willpower is an unreliable partner here, so we shouldn’t rely on it.
Removing the prompt is fairly straightforward, and effective. If I hadn’t seen the egg in the first place, I may not have been prompted to eat any of it. If I’d have put it out of sight after eating a piece or two, I may not have been prompted to eat the rest.
I could have certainly made it harder to eat the egg. If the egg had been in the car, for example, even if I was prompted to eat it by a strong post-meal chocolate craving, the effort involved in getting it may have been enough to stop me eating it. If, after that first bite, I had rewrapped the rest and put it in the fridge, that might have been enough of an “effort barrier” to stop me eating anymore.
In fact, even small effort barriers can make a big difference to the consumption of highly rewarding foods like chocolate. This has been demonstrated many times, most recently (and most rigorously) by researchers in Birmingham. They carried out two studies, one involving chocolate brownies and one involving M&Ms. Here’s what they found:
- Wrapping chocolate brownies in clear plastic, compared to leaving them unwrapped, reduced consumption by more than 50%
- Placing chocolate brownies 70 cm away (just out of arm’s reach), compared to 20 cm away (within arm’s reach), reduced consumption by more than 50%
- Placing M&Ms 70 cm away, compared to 20 cm away, reduced consumption by more than two thirds
Now, reaching an extra 50 cm or taking off a wrapper may not seem like much effort, but it’s enough to drastically reduce the quantity eaten.
If you want to stop eating chocolate (or biscuits or crisps or cake), don’t rely on willpower. It’s a miserable existence and it won’t work anyway. The best thing you can do is make those things harder to obtain.
Keep them wrapped up at the back of the cupboard, put them on a high shelf, or (even better) don’t keep them in the house at all. These actions would not only reduce your ability to eat the food, but would also remove the prompt, significantly reducing your consumption without you even thinking about it.
You don’t have to restrict your consumption of a particular food to eat less of it – you don’t have to give up anything – just make it a little harder to obtain, and your brain will subconsciously get you to the outcome you want.
Think about this. You can eat chocolate whenever you want – you just have to go to the shop to buy it. You can drink wine whenever you want – you just have to go to the shop to buy it. You will eat less chocolate and drink less wine without a feeling of restriction.