Looking affects eating

Looking affects eating

Pictures of delicious chocolates are everywhere. Food blogs. Print advertisements. Magazines. Flickr. Facebook. Everywhere. Does paying attention to these beautiful, delectable pictures of chocolate lead to longer quests for chocolate? Increased eating of chocolate?

To determine the answer to these questions, a research team led by Jessica Werthmann1 used a “LOOK AT!”– “LOOK AWAY!” task. Ok. Ok. The task is actually called the attention bias modification task or the antisaccade task.

Now — isn’t my name better? Especially with the caps and exclamation marks??

So, for the “LOOK AT!”– “LOOK AWAY!” task, the women stared at the center of a computer screen. Subsequently, a picture of a chocolate or shoe would pop up to the left or right of fixation. The “chocolate” group moved their eyes toward the picture if it was a chocolate and to the opposite side if it was a shoe. The “shoe” group did the reverse and looked at the shoes and away from the chocolates.

Now, why include shoes in the mix?

The shoe group acted as a comparison group to rule out the explanation that simply looking at ANY pictures could increase a person’s motivation to find and devour chocolate. Logically, shoes as the comparison group works well. Stereotypically, women like shoes as much as they like chocolate, so their motivation to look at or pay attention to shoes and chocolates is arguably the same. Also, the researchers could equate the size and color of the chocolate and shoe pictures. Size, color, and other basic factors can affect what people look at or pay attention to. These details determine whether the results are meaningful or garbage. What’s the saying? The devil is in the details.

As an aside – did you notice the picture with this post? Chocolate shoes! I’m so very proud of myself for this – I want to say – cleverness, but the only clever person in this scenario is the person who took the picture (OzAdr1an)!

Okay. Now back to the storyline. After the ladies looked at either pictures of chocolates or shoes, they had a few important tasks:

1)    Search for chocolate: Each participant was to find TWO pieces of chocolate in the experimental room as quickly as possible. However, the tricky experimenters hid only ONE piece of chocolate. A little evil, huh? A participant stopped the search, or the search automatically stopped after seven minutes – whichever came first. Of course, search time was recorded to assess motivation to look for chocolate. The more time, the bigger the motivation.

2)   Eat chocolate: After the scavenger hunt, an experimenter profusely apologized for forgetting to hide a second piece of chocolate. As an apology, the experimenter offered each participant a bowl filled with chocolate pieces. A participant could take as many as she wanted. The bowls were weighed before and after the participant had taken her fill to measure intake in grams. Embarrassing? Potentially. A silver lining is the results of each individual are kept secret and never, ever published with the person’s name.

Remember, initially, the participants looked at either shoes or chocolates. Well, sometimes a participant made a mistake and looked at the wrong thing! Oops. How do we know that? The researchers kept track of where the participants were looking with an eye-tracker.

Whether the participants were (a) accurate or not in the “LOOK AT!”– “LOOK AWAY!” task or (b) in the “chocolate” or “shoe” group, search time for the non-existent SECOND piece was similar. Looking behavior did not affect searching or, as I like to call it, scavenging.

Munching is another story.

These are the results for those ladies who were highly accurate in the “LOOK AT!”– “LOOK AWAY!” task: Those who looked at “chocolates” compared to those who looked at “shoes” ate MORE chocolate.

Before we can conclude that looking at pictures of chocolates leads to eating chocolate … there’s another result:

For those who had some problem with the task, the ladies who were to look at “chocolates” compared to those who were to look at “shoes” ate LESS chocolate. Why the opposite results? We can only speculate.

Let’s look at the results in sitcom language: For the brainiacs in the “chocolate” group, well they ate and ate chocolate. For the ladies who kept sneaking away to look at shoes in the “chocolate” group, well they pushed away the chocolate and said no thank-you to the sweets.

It appears that looking affects eating. Sometimes people will eat more, sometimes less.

I wonder how this works for vegetables.




1 Werthmann, J., Field, M., Roefs, A., Nederkoorn, C., & Jansen, A. (2014). Attention bias for chocolate increases chocolate consumption: An attention bias modification study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45, 136-143.

Image Attribution

IMG4008-Edit by OzAdr1an