Today’s diets and weight loss programs typically incorporate strategies to avoid deprivation, low blood sugar, and cranky mood swings that came with the cabbage soup diets of yesteryear. But according to a new study, dieters are doomed to bad moods, even if they’re allowed a 100-calorie snack: Researchers say that self-control makes you angry, not low-calorie food.
The study, led by marketing professors Wendy Liu and David Gal, investigated the theory held by psychologists that self-control is a finite resource, so when we consistently use it to avoid chips, candy, and cake while we’re on a diet, we exhaust our supply, heightening our mood swings and irritability. (We’ve all been there.) Liu and Gal administered three experiments to test the theory:
1) They asked participants to choose between an apple and a bar of chocolate before watching a movie. Those who chose to eat an apple were more likely to opt for an aggressively-themed movie like Anger Management (over Billy Madison) or Hamlet (over Romeo and Juliet).
2) They offered 139 women the choice between a $50 gift certificate to a spa or a $50 gift certificate for groceries, then asked them to rate a series of photos of angry faces on a scale of one to seven (where one is “not arousing” and seven is “extremely arousing”). Those who chose the groceries (the more responsible, less indulgent option) gave the faces an average score of 3.75, whereas women who chose a certificate for the spa gave them an average score of 3.12.
3) Participants were again asked to choose between an apple or a candy bar; then read health messages that included controlling phrases like “should” “need to” and “must.” Those who chose an apple over candy were more likely to rate the messages as irritating.
Liu and Gal recommend “avoiding self-control dilemmas in the first place or cognitively reappraising the situation so that the virtuous choice does not involve a denial of satisfaction.” And, like good marketers, they also figured out that anger-themed products and games like “Angry Birds” would do well to advertise in the health aisles of grocery stores.