Killer cake: To resist temptation, exaggerate threat

This article was featured on the McCombs School of Business McCombs Today blog.

Are you on a diet? The chances are pretty good that you might be. It is estimated that at any one time two-thirds of American adults are on a diet of some kind. That is a lot of people battling the bulge on a daily basis.

And how do people stay on diets? How do people resist temptation? Some of the most common strategies are familiar to anyone who has tried to lose weight, techniques such as not shopping on an empty stomach, clearing the refrigerator of all caloric enticements, avoiding dinners out with friends and joining support groups or gyms.

Ying Zhang

McCombs School of Business researchers Ying Zhang (left), Szu-Chi Huang and Susan M. Broniarczyk studied techniques that enable us resist temptation, and have demonstrated another tactic that works.

"Experiments show that when consumers encounter temptations that conflict with their long-term goals, one self-control mechanism is to exaggerate the negativity of the temptation as a way to resist," said Zhang, an assistant professor of marketing.

The authors call the process "counteractive construal." Zhang said that with enough practice the technique can become automatic and habitual.

In one study, female participants were asked to estimate the calories in a cookie. Half the participants were told that they have the option of receiving the cookie as a complimentary gift for participation and half were not. The results showed that consumers with a strong dieting goal construed the cookie as having more calories and being more damaging to the attainment of their long-term goal of losing weight, and this only happens with people who expect to receive a cookie -- thus experiencing the self-control conflict.

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