Successful Dieting in Tempting Environments: Mission Impossible?

These lines of research suggest that it is difficult for dieters to resist temptations because tempting food cues trigger the hedonic goal of eating enjoyment, while inhibiting the dieting goal. Does this really influence behavior? Yes! There is a great deal of research showing that accessible goals can have a strong influence on people’s behavior and that priming desirable goal states triggers motivated behavior to reach that goal (e.g., see Aarts, 2007). Moreover, numerous studies have already demonstrated that dieters are more likely to overeat when exposed to tempting food cues. Research inspired by the goal conflict model increases our understanding of the psychological processes underlying these findings. Think back, for example, to the “pizza study” of Fedoroff and colleagues (1997), who demonstrated that priming participants with the smell of pizza increased pizza consumption for dieters. Smelling tasty pizza is likely to prime eating enjoyment for dieters. Consequently, the dieting goal is inhibited, while thoughts about eating enjoyment are flooding the mind of dieters. Moreover, dieters evaluate pizza more positively and perceive it as bigger than without pre-exposure to the pizza smell. These processes are likely to have made it very difficult for dieters to resist the temptation of eating the high-caloric pizza. Fortunately, not all dieters fail.

Why Some Dieters Succeed

Whereas the goal conflict model of eating (Stroebe, 2008) offers an explanation for why dieters often fail, the theory of temptation-elicited goal activation (Fishbach, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2003) suggests that tempting food cues can also initiate processes that should lead to successful self-control. Fishbach and colleagues (2003) suggested that there are successful dieters for whom temptations increase the cognitive accessibility of long-term goals that are typically undermined by these temptations. They argue that a facilitative link between temptation and goal develops when people repeatedly and successfully exert self-control in tempting situations. For instance, if you have been able for some time to say no when offered a piece of cake on birthday parties because you are on a diet, a link between cakes and dieting may develop. The next time that you are exposed to cake you should automatically activate your dieting goal which should make it easier to turn down the piece of cake.

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