Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fruit or Cake?

photo from
Would you choose Fruit?

Keoln Maerz 2009 PD 20090327 078
photo by PolitiKaner
Or Cake?

Last week, my friend, Kathi, was talking about a study she had heard reported on NPR.

Subjects were given a series of numbers to memorize. They could take as much time as they liked to memorize and then they were to walk down a hall and tell the numbers to someone in another room. Some subjects were given 2 numbers to memorize; some were given 7 (previous research has shown that 7 numbers is about the maximum amount most people can remember).

What the subjects didn't know is that halfway down the hall, a person would offer them a snack as a thank-you for participating in the study. The subjects were welcome to choose fresh fruit salad or chocolate cake. Overwhelmingly, those who had only 2 numbers to remember chose fruit. Those who had the more difficult task of remembering 7 numbers, overwhelmingly chose the cake.

The idea, of course, is that when we are under stress, we tend to make decisions which might not be so good for us. Typically, the rational and deliberate part of our brain makes choices: "The fruit is good for me, it will keep me healthy, I choose fruit." But, when we are stressed--when our brain has too much to keep track of-- our emotional brain takes over and drives our choices: We might choose a food which brings us comfort.

This is not a new idea, of course, and you can find many studies showing the relationship between stress and overeating. But, I thought this study proved the point in an unusually simple and straightforward way.

To hear the complete study, go to Radio Lab.

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