Indulgent Foods Can Paradoxically Promote Disciplined Dietary Choices

Psychol Sci. 2019 Feb;30(2):273-287. doi: 10.1177/0956797618817509. Epub 2019 Jan 9.


As obesity rates continue to rise, interventions promoting healthful choices will become increasingly important. Here, participants ( N = 79) made binary choices between familiar foods; some trials contained a common consequence that had a constant probability of receipt regardless of the participant's choice. We theorized-on the basis of simulations using a value-normalization model-that indulgent common consequences potentiated disciplined choices by shaping other options' perceived healthfulness and tastiness. Our experimental results confirmed these predictions: An indulgent common consequence more than doubled the rate of disciplined choices. We used eye-gaze data to provide insights into the underlying mechanisms, finding that an indulgent common consequence biased eye gaze toward healthful foods. Furthermore, attention toward the common consequence predicted individual differences in behavioral bias. Results were replicated across two independent samples receiving distinct goal primes. These results demonstrate that introducing an irrelevant indulgent food can alter processing of healthier items-and thus promote disciplined choices.

Keywords: context effects; decision making; delay of gratification; dietary choice; open data; open materials; self-control.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attentional Bias / physiology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Diet*
  • Eye Movement Measurements
  • Female
  • Food Preferences / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Self-Control*
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult