The famous chocolate cake scene in Danny DeVito’s Matilda shows our food cravings can get the best of us, yet also teach us the power of self-control. After stealing cake from the school cafeteria, a boy, Bruce, is forced to eat an entire thick, moist, chocolate cake against his own will. After a few mouthfuls, his intense craving for chocolate begins to wear off. Bruce was the victim of the habituation technique. In other words, he got used to it.
In Brit Lab’s video, “How To Control Your Cravings,” host Michael Mosley explains this “get used to it” technique is a useful psychological trick that could help us control cravings and boost our willpower. In a 2015 experiment, Professor Carey Morewedge from Boston University gathered more than 200 chocolate enthusiasts to test what happens when we imagine eating these foods rather than actually eat them. When a group of volunteers was asked to imagine eating chocolate three times while another group had to imagine eating it 30 times, the latter group ate 40 percent less compared to the others.
In this case, the best way to avoid eating chocolate was to actually force the volunteers to repeatedly think about tasting, swallowing, and chewing it. When we try to suppress desires, like chocolate, we actually crave it more, according to Mosley. Meanwhile, if we imagine eating copious amounts of the food, we won’t be as eager to eat the real food when given the chance.
For example, when we first eat something we really crave, we activate the brain’s reward center, which releases the feel-good hormone dopamine. However, the more often this behavior occurs, the less influence it has on the reward system over time, decreasing dopamine levels. In other words, once we’ve eaten more than enough of the food we crave in one sitting, we don’t need to be rewarded for eating more food because our brain has become used to it.
Remember, the habitation technique only works for the specific thing we are imagining, or something similar to it. For example, there is no use imaging eating cheese if we have a craving for chocolate. Cravings are essentially our brain’s way of telling us we need something when actually we don't.
So the next time we crave our vice, let’s think about having it 30 times, and ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?”