Washington D.C.: Wondering what to order the next time you eat out? Pick wisely, as it may tell a lot about you. A study has recently revealed that people, who choose unhealthy food over healthy food in real time, had a lower self-control to resist temptation.
Researchers from Ohio State University in Columbus, USA watched in real time as people’s hands revealed the struggle they were under to choose the long-term goal over short-term temptation. But for those with higher levels of self-control, the path to the healthy food was more direct, indicating that they experienced less conflict.
“Our hand movements reveal the process of exercising self-control,” said co-author of the study Paul Stillman.
“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,” Stillman added.
The study involved 81 college students, who 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).
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. The results showed that those who chose the candy bar at the end of the experiment were those with lower self-control.
“The more they were pulled toward the temptation on the computer screen, the more they actually chose the temptations and failed at self-control,” Stillman noted. Those with lower levels of self-control had mouse trajectories that were clearly different from those with higher self-control, suggesting differences in how they were dealing with the decisions.
“This mouse-tracking metric could be a powerful new tool to investigate real-time conflict when people have to make decisions related to self-control,” he said. The findings also offer new evidence in a debate about how decision-making in self-control situations unfolds, Stillman said.
The research will appear in the journal Psychological Science.