We've all walked into a restaurant with the best of intentions only to order something absurd, like a cheese-injected burger topped with bacon on a brioche bun. It's delicious for the few minutes it takes to eat the thing, and then you're left with a bellyful of regret and an inability to directly look at the numbers on your scale.
Turns out that getting yourself to make healthy choices isn't as hard as one might think.
The Journal of Consumer Research conducted a study where they asked students to hold a pen as they went in to order food. Some students were instructed to hold the pen loosely, others were told to grip the pen tightly. The group that clenched their fists around the pen chose twice as many healthy foods as the other group.
Why did clenching their fists help the students make better eating choices? The theory is called "embodied cognition." Psychology generally tends to view the mind as being the originator of decisions and behavior, but embodied cognition focuses on how the body can influence the mind, especially when it comes to making choices.
In the past, researchers noted that certain mental behaviors are accompanied by physical gestures. Increasingly, there's evidence that making the physical gestures first can bring about certain desired mental behaviors.
The researchers at CJR posit that for many people, summoning up willpower is often accompanied by physical gestures and actions: clenched fists, firming up muscles, straighter posture, etc.
As they explored the increasingly complex and fascinating relationship the body and the mind have on one another, they say that summoning one of these physical gestures (in this case, fist clenching) can also give people access to the mental willpower they require to consciously make better choices. And certainly when it comes to those students in the snack bar, it did seem to pay off.
It's not only about food, either: clenching one's fist also helped people follow through on making charitable donations and drink health-inducing (but unpleasant tasting) medicines.
You don't have to be limited to clenching your fist, either. Tightening your fingers, biceps, or calves all seem to have the same effect.
The duo behind the study, Iris W. Hung and Aparna A. Labroo, write: "The mind and the body are so closely tied together that merely clenching muscles can also activate willpower. Thus simply engaging in these bodily actions, which often result from an exertion of willpower, can serve as a non-conscious source to recruit willpower, facilitate self-control, and improve consumer well being."
However, this trick is most effective when people are facing a decision that has personal significance to them or when dealing with a choice that's right in front of them. All the fist-clenching in the world won't get you to eat more salad if that choice remains abstract or you don't particularly care about eating healthier.