BEHAVIOR
March 20, 2009

Curb Impulses -- Take a Break

New research has given scientists insight into what it takes to curb those impulsive, indulgent, behaviors like overeating or making purchases...
People often act impulsively and later wish that they hadn't. A common type of impulsive behavior is overindulgence: shopping, food, video games *#8212; the list is endless. Overindulgence often comes from people trying to manipulate their mood. It's used as a quick pick me up when feeling bad or as a way to continue feeling good. Everybody does it now and then. But over time, it can even turn into an unthinking reflex: Feel bad, have a brownie.

You're temporarily distracting yourself in the hope that your craving and any bad mood that caused it will soften. Often it will.

Is there an easy way to stop? Two researchers in consumer behavior from the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin have some ideas.

One way takes advantage of the fact that impulses pass or grow weaker over time. The next time you're reaching for a brownie or ready to go on a shopping spree, stop for a moment. Go wash the dishes, make a phone call, annoy the cat or talk with anyone who's nearby. When you're done, the impulse may not be so strong. You're temporarily distracting yourself in the hope that your craving and any bad mood that caused it will soften. Often it will.

Some people are too analytical to be easily distracted. They should think about the long term consequences of satisfying their short term desires. That brownie will go straight to the hips. That shopping spree will turn into a major headache when the rent or mortgage payment is due.

To change your behavior in these situations, you must first recognize it's a pattern: you're repeating what you've done in the past. If you'd like to stop, you'll have to do something different. Whether this involves thinking your way through the situation or physically removing yourself from it depends on the type of person you are. See which works best for you.

In one of the studies the researchers performed with dieters, dieters were given a choice of an apple or a chocolate as a snack. But first, each had to complete a task: coloring in a line drawing of a smiley face. Some were given a broad tipped marker, which colors quickly. The others were given a superfine marker, which made it take much longer to complete the task. Those who used the superfine marker were more likely to choose the apple.

The researchers interpret this as showing that those with the fine-tip associated a positive outcome (the smiley face) with less transience (their long term desires) and that's why they chose the apple. Whatever was going through the dieters' minds during the experiment, clearly the passage of time helped more of them to choose the healthier snack.

The study authors offer some final advice on dealing with your mood: "If you are feeling happy, focus on reasons why those feelings will last, and if you are feeling unhappy, focus on reasons why those feelings will pass."

The research appears in the February 2009 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
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