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A Science-Backed Way to Develop Incredible Self-Control

Ever wonder how seriously disciplined people do it? Research reveals a practice that helped average men and women overcome temptation and make better choices.

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As many of us start the year with aims for healthier lifestyles, we are faced not simply with the creation of new habits but also with the management of temptation.

Over the last decade, a surge of research has emerged in science publications about the psychological and physiological benefits of ancient Eastern mindfulness meditation. Newer research now documents that different forms of mindfulness practice—seated and walking meditations, scanning and relaxing tension through the body, and breathing awareness—may significantly reduce stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms as well as increase self-regulatory behaviors and help develop self-control.

Intrigued by the possibility of mindfulness regulating appetitive behaviors, social psychology professor and expert in dieting and goal-related behavior at Utrecht University, Esther K. Papies, Ph.D., led a three-part study on the initial effects of mindful attention on behavioral responses to two common appetitive stimuli: food and sex appeal.

When resolving to change our behaviors related to food and sex, much of the battle occurs in the mind before the tasty dish is even in our hands. Among a number of mechanisms, the act of simply looking at food or even just reading appetizing words can stimulate gustatory and pleasure centers in the brain, suggesting that the viewer processes a food cue as if actually eating it. Such mental “reward simulations” are also seen in processing visual sexual stimuli. Among many functions, the amygdala is thought to process appetitive and aversive stimuli as well as emotional arousal, inciting a sexual response in the hypothalamus. Looking at sexually attractive photos has been shown to stimulate activity in the amygdala and hypothalamus in the limbic region of the brain in both genders, and more so in men. If simply looking at and imagining the delight of consumption triggers us, how can we develop self-control and manage acting upon temptation?


Related: Is Meditation the Key to Successful Weight Loss?

In a 2015 publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Papies’ research team hypothesized that by learning to view one’s thoughts as mere passing events through a practice known as “mindful attention,” one can reduce mental reward simulation from viewing appealing food and sexually attractive people, a simulation that typically triggers conscious and unconscious appetitive behaviors.

In the first of three experiments, Papies’ team conjectured that learning to view pleasure-related thoughts as merely fleeting using mindful attention would lead to lower levels of perceived attractiveness of other people, therefore informing choice of partner. Given previous findings that people who are more interested in casual sex tend to have vivid reward simulations of sex and heightened attraction to potential partners, participants’ levels of sexual motivation were taken into account using the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory.

In this first experiment, one group of heterosexual participants received previously developed mindful attention training: in 12 minutes, participants were advised to simply observe their thoughts as transient mental events upon computer presentation of photos of people. In a control group training, participants viewed the same photos but were asked to immerse themselves deeply in the pictures. Following the training phase, both groups were shown 40 novel photos of the opposite sex and asked to indicate at the press of a yes or no key whether they would be desired partners (a one-second response window promoted intuitive answers). Both groups were shown the 40 photos once again, this time asked to indicate level of attractiveness on a scale from one to 100.

Results revealed that in contrast to the control group, the mindful attention group’s level of sexual motivation no longer predicted perceived attractiveness of others. In the control condition, sexual motivation boosted attractiveness perception and partner judgment. These results suggest that mindful attention could mediate how we perceive sexual attractiveness of others and therefore, may regulate how we choose partners.

The second experiment nearly replicated the first, this time evaluating effects of mindful attention on food attractiveness and choice. Typically, being in a state of hunger boosts attractiveness of food, particularly unhealthy food. Papies’ team therefore predicted that mindful attention practice would be associated with reduced attraction toward choice of unhealthy foods, accounting for level of hunger. Different from Experiment 1, control group participants were no longer asked to immerse themselves in the images and instead advised to observe photos closely but in a natural, relaxed way.

Both the mindful attention group and control groups were randomly presented sumptuous food images high in sugar and fats and healthier food images and asked to indicate whether they would like to eat the food in that moment. Results revealed that level of hunger strongly predicted unhealthy food choice in the control condition but not the mindful attention condition, suggesting that mindful attention may not curb appetite, but may lead to healthier food impulses even while in a state of hunger.

In a follow-up third experiment, Papies’ team extended beyond a laboratory setting and into the real world. At University College Utrecht in the Netherlands, over 100 volunteer undergraduates were randomly assigned to a mindful attention training, control training, and no-intervention group as they entered the campus cafeteria. After seemingly completing their involvement in the study before entering the lunchroom, researchers then reviewed participants’ subsequent food choices in the cafeteria. While level of hunger was associated with higher caloric intake across all groups, 76% of mindful attention participants chose salads in comparison to 49% of no-intervention participants and 56% of control participants. Mindful attention participants took in fewer calories than control conditions and were less likely to consume unhealthy foods overall.


Related:  A Meditation to Help Manage Food Cravings

Papies’ initial findings across all three experiments suggest that 12 minutes of mindful attention can modulate the effects of sexual motivation and hunger state on perceived attractiveness of food and people as well as response to temptation. More research is needed to account for gaps in procedure and isolate any neurological shifts that might underlie observed behavior changes, but these findings indicate mindfulness may be a useful tool for anyone aiming to resist temptation and implement positive life changes.

How Can You Practice Mindful Attention?

Mindful attention is simply the awareness of thought and feeling in response to a stimulus.  The following practice is adapted from mindfulness tradition and Papies’ research, and can be done in just a few minutes.

1. Bring to view or mind an attractive image. This might be a type of food, person, or activity. As an example, we’ll use the activity of engaging in social media.

2. Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. Remember, mindful attention is the act of accepting any thoughts and feelings as normal and impermanent. Start by simply acknowledging what arises. You may experience reactionary thoughts like, “I like social media,” or “I really wish I could check my social media page right now.” You might experience feelings, or wordless sensations, like churning in your stomach or ache in your body. You may notice no particular feeling or thought at all.

3. Let your thoughts and feelings fall away. Allow your emotions and thoughts to move through you. To add a pinch of humor to the experience, as your thoughts continue to arise, imagine yourself waving goodbye to them as they move across the screen of your mind. You might silently say to yourself, “I allow this thought/feeling to pass.”

Similar to any kind of practice, your experience with mindful attention will likely offer transformation over time.

Mindful attention might only seem like a way to detach, though it could offer quite the contrary; practicing mindful attention can support us in actively deciding when to engage and when not to engage, and therefore shape our lives to resemble what we want. By simply observing and allowing appetitive pull to pass, more self-control is in our hands than we might think.



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