Science - November 24, 2016

Temptation as a vaccine

Anja Janssen

Why do people often exhibit such unhealthy behaviour and how can you change that? These are the questions driving Emely de Vet, appointed professor holding a personal chair in Health Communication and Behaviour Change in March. She is researching for example whether exposure to a little temptation could help people develop self-control.

Photo: Guy Ackermans

De Vet wants to understand more about the impact of our ‘fattening’ environment and she hopes to develop practical methods that will encourage people to eat more healthily. She argues that information is certainly not the be-all and end-all. ‘We aren’t really in control of much of our behaviour. For example, we often don’t know what we eat exactly or what specific stimuli cause us to eat what we do.’

That is why De Vet is investigating small modifications in the environment that could help people spontaneously make healthy choices and why she is looking at the relationship between the food on offer and social norms. Previous research showed that a tray of chocolates on the counter at the baker’s did not necessarily tempt people to eat them. Customers only took a chocolate if there were empty wrappers next to the tray. In this way, people unconsciously influence one another’s eating behaviour.

But even if we live in a fattening environment, not everyone is fat. ‘Some people have no problem coping with temptation,’ says De Vet. ‘They use tricks to stick to their good intentions. For instance, if they feel like potato chips they will do something to take their mind off it, or put a few in a bowl and then put the bag back.’ Other people are much more susceptible to a food-rich environment. One possible cause is a strong spatial memory for places with high-energy food. From an evolutionary perspective, this was an advantage for women – traditionally the ‘gatherers’. They still seem to be better at this than men, which could make women more vulnerable to places with a lot of food.

The professor says it is not realistic to try and eradicate all sources of temptation in the environment. She also suspects that children actually need a bit of temptation in order to learn self-control. De Vet compares this with a vaccination. Just as a vaccine causes the body to develop resistance to a virus, so having tasty food around will teach children to cope better with temptation.

De Vet will be giving her inaugural lecture on 24 November, followed by a WURtalk on resisting temptation on 28 November.