Attention And The Self-Control Of Eating

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Annals Of Behavioral Medicine


We report on two studies designed to examine how changes in attention result in alterations in the self-regulation of eating among dieters. We systematically varied the degree of attentional load imposed on participants across a series of tasks called the n-back tasks. In the zero-back task, which demands the least amount of attention, participants respond “yes” whenever a particular letter is mentioned (e.g., A). The 1-back, 2-back, and 3-back tasks each require an increasing amount of attention to complete, with the 3-back task nearly impossible. We also ran a control condition that did not include an attentionally demanding task. In all conditions, participants were invited to consume food during the task, and the primary outcome measure was the amount consumed as increasing levels of attention were dedicated to performing the task. In both studies, we found that increases in attentional load associated with the task led to self-regulation failure, but only up to a certain point. Both the zero-back and 1-back tasks required more attention than the control task, and both led to disinhibited eating compared to the control task. However, when the attention task was so difficult (i.e., the 2-back task) that participants had to devote all of their processing ability to it in order to succeed at it, participants reduced their eating dramatically, presumably reflecting lack of attention to the food itself. These results conform to recent neuroscientific research, which predicts an inverted U-shaped relationship between the degree of attentional load demanded by a cognitive task and failure at self-regulation. When our subjects were confronted with a task that was still more challenging—indeed, so challenging that they failed at it (i.e., the 3-back task), they consumed significantly more food than participants in the other conditions, supporting previous research findings indicating that dieters overeat after experiencing failure. These findings shed light on the level of attention necessary for individuals to regulate their eating.

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