Forget perfecting your poker face. It’s your hands that may be giving you away…
It takes just a few seconds to choose a cookie over an apple and wreck your diet for the day. But what is happening during those few seconds while you make the decision? In a new study, researchers watched in real time as people’s hands revealed the struggle they were under to choose the long-term goal over short-term temptation. The work represents a new approach to studying self-control.
In a new study, researchers watched in real time as people’s hands revealed the struggle they were under to choose the long-term goal over short-term temptation. The work represents a new approach to studying self-control.
In one key experiment, participants viewed pictures of a healthy and an unhealthy food choice on opposite sides of the top of a computer screen and moved a cursor from the center bottom to select one of the foods.
People who moved the cursor closer to the unhealthy treat (even when they ultimately made the healthy choice) later showed less self-control than did those who made a more direct path to the healthy snack.
“Our hand movements reveal the process of exercising self-control. You can see the struggle as it happens. For those with low self-control, the temptation is actually drawing their hand closer to the less-healthy choice.”
-Dr. Paul Stillman, co-author of the study and postdoctoral researcher in psychology at The Ohio State University
The study involved several experiments. In one, 81 college students made 100 decisions involving healthy versus unhealthy food choices.
In each trial, they clicked a “Start” button at the bottom of the screen. As soon as they did, two images appeared in the upper-left and upper-right corners of the screen, one a healthy food (such as Brussels sprouts) and the other an unhealthy one (such as a brownie).
They were told to choose as quickly as possible which of the two foods would most help them meet their health and fitness goals. So there was a “correct” answer, even if they were tempted by a less healthy treat.
Before the experiment began, the participants were told that after they finished they would be given one of the foods they chose in the experiment. At the end, however, they could freely choose whether they wanted an apple or a candy bar.
The results showed that those who chose the candy bar at the end of the experiment — those with lower self-control — had tended to veer closer to the unhealthy foods on the screen…
But for those with higher levels of self-control, the path to the healthy food was more direct, indicating that they experienced less conflict.