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Pizza or Brussels sprouts? How we process food choices

Do you lack self-control when it comes to food? If so, maybe you need to slow down a bit.


Do you lack self-control when it comes to food? If so, maybe you need to slow down a bit.

At least that's the suggestion of researchers who recently exposed a group of 28 hungry college students to a series of computer images of food and asked them to mouse click on the grub they preferred.

Their conclusion? It takes longer for people to mentally process the health value of food than it does for them to process its anticipated taste.

The findings were published this week in the journal Psychological Science.

"These data suggest that slowing down decisions, even if only by adding a waiting period before choice, might increase the relative influence of abstract attributes like health," wrote lead author Nicolette Sullivan — a graduate student in computation and neural systems at the California Institute of Technology — and her colleagues.

The researchers based their experiment on the premise that before deciding what to eat, people weigh their taste impulse against more abstract concepts, such as the health qualities of a certain food. Taste attributes, they figured, were processed much earlier than health attributes.

To test their hunch, study authors recruited student volunteers who were told not to eat for four hours before showing up for the experiment.

The test subjects were seated before a computer and asked to rate 160 different foods on the basis of taste and health and how much they would like to eat the food after the experiment.

The students were then asked to read an article about food health and were shown 280 images that depicted two different types of food. In each case, the students were asked to move their cursor to the food they preferred.

Based on their statistical analysis of the cursor's path and how quickly it moved, researchers said that taste attributes were processed about 195 milliseconds earlier than health attributes.

"These results suggest that, on average, taste information began to influence the choice process about 9 percent earlier than health information," the authors wrote in Monday's study.

However, the researchers also noted that a sizable portion of test subjects rarely considered the health qualities of a food.

"We found that health never became a significant influence on the trajectory for 32 percent of subjects," they wrote.


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