This might be the most difficult post I’ve ever had to write. Not because of the hours involved in devising recipes, cooking them, photographing them, going through countless databases and articles in order to find some interesting food-related scientific research to write about, actually writing the post, etc. The difficulty is mainly because of the title of the paper I’m writing about:
Overcoming the urge to splurge: Influencing eating behaviour by manipulating inhibitory control.
The 5th word in the title: absolutely the worst word in the English language.
I hate it so much. Who would have thought that a single word, by virtue of the mere sound of its phonemes, could conjure up such grotesque imagery and such a visceral revulsion in a person? I don’t understand how that word isn’t onomatopoeic for the sound of vomiting. It makes me want to vomit, it sounds like the noise people make when vomiting – it would be put to good use if it were employed in that manner.
I also hate the meaning that it stands for: some sort of unjustified failure of self-control, a lapse in good judgement, a lack of consideration and deliberation. People use the word in and of itself to try to attempt to justify their unjustified behaviour, as if the fact that the behaviour has a name means that it’s legitimate. Oh I just spent $900 on an antique Royal Doulton “Bunnykins” tea set from 1954, someone (I don’t know who) might say, but it’s OK – it was a… splurge. OH MY GOD. I would prefer if people just owned up to it and said they made an impulsive, spontaneous, poorly informed decision, but hey, it felt good at the time. It would be even better if they just made an informed, thoughtful, deliberate decision after a long and critical analysis of the pros and cons, but hey – humans as a species are nothing if not impulsive and irrational.
And I should know. Well, I should know something about it, to some limited extent. One of the things I study in my PhD is the ability to control behaviour, albeit in a bit of a simplified way: I use simple computer-based tasks that test people’s ability to withhold a response that they’re used to making. So my research participants press a button as quickly as possible to indicate whether they’ve seen an X or an O flash up on the screen, but sometimes, infrequently, a red box flashes up around the X or the O and that means the participant has to withhold the response they were going to make. This is a measure of a person’s inhibitory control. The greater your inhibitory control, the less trouble you have inhibiting your response when you see that red box, and this is something that naturally varies from person to person. A pretty straight-forward task, seemingly, but incredibly important in daily life – you have to constantly evaluate your environment and change your behaviour accordingly. You don’t want to be driving through a red light because you have trouble inhibiting your foot from pressing the accelerator.
But wow – I never anticipated the potential power of this simple computer task to actually improve people’s inhibitory control in a way that might improve their eating habits. All I needed to do was chuck in some photos of things like cupcakes or chocolate and I could have been doing all my participants a huge favour (and simultaneously wrecking my actual PhD project).
This is what my task looks like:
On trials like the one in the top stream, an X or O pops up and the participant has to respond as quickly as possible to identify the letter. But on trials like the one in the bottom stream, an X or an O pops up followed a fraction of a second later by a red box, the stop-signal, which indicates to participants that they need to withhold the response they were going to make.
If I adapted my task to be like the one used in the urge to spl*rge study by Houben, this is what it would look like:
Sometimes participants might see the top stream – M&Ms flash up and they press a button to indicate that they’ve seen a food item (the alternative is that they might see something like a chair flash up and they press a button to indicate that they’ve seen a non-food item). Other times, participants might see the bottom stream – chips flash up and they go to press a button to indicate that they’ve seen a food item, but then they hear an auditory tone that tells them that they have to withhold that response that they were going to make (again, the stop-signal).
The manipulation here is that one of the 3 different food items that are displayed (chips, nuts or M&Ms) is always paired with the stop-signal, one is never paired with the stop-signal, and one is only paired with the stop-signal 50% of the time. This is to see if participants might be pairing their response inhibition with a particular type of food and perhaps through associative learning they might become better at inhibiting responses to that food in general – maybe if they’re used to inhibiting their response every time they see M&Ms, and you give them some real M&Ms, they won’t be so impulsive and eat so many of them. Maybe.
And yeah, you kind of get that. If you take a subset of participants who have particularly bad inhibitory control (they’re more than 1 standard deviation below average for inhibition speed), you can actually decrease their consumption of the food that was always paired with the stop signal, compared to the food that was paired with the stop-signal 50% of the time (the control condition). So if they were always inhibiting their response to M&Ms but not to chips, after the experiment, they’ll eat fewer M&Ms than they perhaps otherwise would.
However, you have to be careful with this one – it has the power for both good and evil. If you take a subset of participants who have particularly good inhibitory control (more than 1 standard deviation above average for inhibition speed), it seems there is a trend towards them eating more of the food that was never paired with a stop-signal compared to the food that was paired with the stop-signal 50% of the time. So they get used to responding quickly and maybe impulsively to a particular food, and when you actually give them that food after the task, they eat more of it than they perhaps otherwise would.
There you go – if for some reason you desperately want to improve your ability to resist a particular food (have you had to take out a personal loan to finance your Valrhona habit?), all you have to do is spend a few thousands dollars on a computer and some task-programming software like E-Prime or Presentation, spend days or possibly weeks learning how to program a response inhibition task containing photos of the food you want to resist and voilà – if you’ve got poor inhibitory control to start with, you might be better at resisting that food, at least immediately after doing that task. Who knows how long-lasting the effects are? Actually, that would be an interesting study to do.
In the meantime, here are some maple syrup and panko biscuits. For those who don’ t know, panko are Japanese breadcrumbs. Panko’s potential for use in sweet recipes was first brought to my attention by the Chuao Chocolatier panko chocolate bar I tried in San Francisco – I found the bar kind of disappointing because try as I might I could not detect the panko flavour, but I believed it could still work well if done differently, which is why I came up with these biscuits. They’re delightfully crunchy and the panko gives them a nice wheaty flavour and trust me, you do not want to inhibit your eating of them.
Recipe for maple syrup & panko biscuits…