Counting calories and remembering when to eat what food can be a complicated business. But a recent study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science presents a much simpler way of resisting temptations: “distanced self-talk,” or talking to yourself in the third person.
Distanced self-talk involves having an internal dialog where you use either your own name, or pronouns like you, he, or she.
The new study found that distanced self-talk is an effective strategy for making healthier food choices.
“Reflecting on a person’s decisions using their own name might enhance their ability to follow through with their goals, which can often be undermined by strong situational lures, such as tempting foods,” said lead author Celina Furman, of the University of Minnesota.
Talking to yourself in the third person shifts the focus
Together with co-authors Ethan Kross and Ashley Gearhardt, Furman found that psychological distance enables more self-control. It does so by shifting the focus away from a food item’s stimulating features. These features might include the sight of potato chips, or the smell of freshly baked cookies.
For example, you might think of a piece of chocolate cake as delicious. But a distanced perspective would have you pay more attention to all those calories and sugar, and how those impact your health goals.
The 244 participants in the study were all young adults. They indicated whether they were currently dieting or trying to lose weight. The researchers then randomly assigned them to watch one of two videos. One was a short health-related video that emphasized eating healthy and exercising. The other (the control video) was a home improvement commercial.
After watching the video, the participants chose between healthy and unhealthy food items on a computer screen. For each pair of foods, the researchers instructed the participants to use either first-person self-talk (“What do I want?”) or distanced self-talk (“[Name], what do you want?”).
Among participants on a diet, the researchers found that those who had viewed the health video chose fewer unhealthy foods when they used distanced self-talk than when they used first-person self-talk.
It needs to be easy if it’s going to work
“Since people are regularly confronted with cheap and accessible tasty foods, self-control strategies that are easy to implement when encountering these foods are more likely to be effective for improving dietary choices,” said Kross.
The researchers noted that even minor changes in eating can make a difference in people’s lives. That means that using distanced self-talk to turn away from unhealthy behaviors could lead to significant improvements in health.
“We do know that even reducing caloric intake by a couple hundred calories a day can be important for preventing unhealthy weight gain and promoting weight loss,” said Gearhardt.
“We need to do additional studies in the future about the impact of distanced self-talk on actual caloric intake,” she said, “but even small improvements can lead to big public health gains over time.”
Study: “Distanced Self-Talk Enhances Goal Pursuit to Eat Healthier”
Authors: C.R. Furman, E. Kross, and A.N. Gearhardt
Published in: Clinical Psychological Science
Publication date: March 3, 2020
Photo: by Jason Briscoe via Unsplash
For a weekly summary of the latest psychology news, subscribe to our Psych News Weekly newsletter.