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Planning Cheat Days Can Help You Stick to Your Goals, Study Suggests

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Whether you’re trying to resist the call of office doughnuts or cut out binge-watching television, breaking habits can be hard. It takes a lot of psychological willpower to say no over and over again. But when it comes to pursuing goals that require self-regulation, it may actually be beneficial to cheat occasionally, new research finds. 

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology finds that planning “hedonic deviations,” a.k.a. giving in to your impulse to eat that doughnut or waste five hours on Netflix, can actually help you stay motivated and stick to your long-term goals. 

In one test, almost 60 college students ran through a virtual diet simulation. Some were told they could eat 1500 calories a day for a week, while others were told they could eat 1300 calories a day, except for the seventh day, on which they could eat up to 2700 calories. After planning out all their meals for a week, they were asked to envision scenarios like grocery shopping after a long day and come up with strategies to resist the temptation of chocolatey snacks. During the task, an open box of various chocolates was left on their desks. The researchers assessed the participants’ self-control before and after each task, finding that the students who had been told they could binge one day had higher capacities to self-regulate and came up with more strategies to help them overcome temptation.

A second experiment recreated the test with actual dieters. More than 30 volunteers followed a two-week diet while keeping a food diary, then came back in for a follow-up assessment a month later. Again, some people were told they could eat 1500 calories a day, and others were told they could eat less on most days, but have whatever they liked on Sundays. The latter group showed more motivation at the end of the diet compared to the continuous goal-striving control group. The straight goal-striving group showed decreases in their ability to self-regulate by the end of the diet, while the intermittent break dieters felt more positive about the diet at the end of the study than the control volunteers. 

But it’s not just about dieting. Your goal could be anything that requires a certain amount of dedication and self-restriction, like saving money or watching less television. A third experiment in the study asked 64 university employees with goals related to self-inhibition to talk about their plans and strategies. People who were primed to think about taking a break from saving money, dieting, or exercising showed greater motivation to pursue their goals. 

By planning for a not-so-far-off day when you’ll let your impulses run wild, it’s easier to resist giving into temptation in the short run. And when you plan to let yourself off the hook at some point, it’s easier to keep going when you have momentary lapses. Just because you bought an expensive meal when you meant to eat a peanut butter sandwich doesn’t make your entire experiment a failure, but if you’re too rigid in your goals, it can feel like any slip negates the whole endeavor. If you’ve already set aside a time to slip up, it doesn’t seem like as big of a deal if it happens by mistake. 

In other words, it might be good to be bad. As long as it’s occasional, and you’ve planned for it. 

[h/t BPS Research Digest]

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Why Reading Aloud Helps You Remember More Information
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If you're trying to commit something to memory, you shouldn't just read the same flashcard over and over. You should read it aloud, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The research, published in the journal Memory, finds that the act of reading and speaking text aloud is a more effective way to remember information than reading it silently or just hearing it read aloud. The dual effect of both speaking and hearing helps encode the memory more strongly, the study reports. The new research builds on previous work on the so-called production effect by Waterloo psychologist Colin MacLeod, who is also one of the current paper's authors.  

The current study tested 95 college students over the course of two semesters, asking them to remember as many words as possible from a list of 160 nouns. At one session, they read a list of words into a microphone, then returned two weeks later for a follow-up. In some situations, the participants read the words presented to them aloud, while in others, they either heard their own recorded voice played back to them, heard recordings of others reading the words, or read the words silently to themselves. Afterward, they were tested to see how much they remembered from the list.

The participants remembered more words if they had read them aloud compared to all other conditions, even the one where people heard their own voices reading the words. However, hearing your own voice on its own does seem to have some effect: it was a better memory tool for participants than hearing someone else speak, perhaps because people are good at remembering things that involve them. (Or maybe, the researchers suggest, it's just because people find it so bizarre to hear their own recorded voice that it becomes a salient memory.)

The findings "suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component," the researchers write. "This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering: We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."

The message is loud and clear: If you want to remember, you should both read it and speak it aloud.

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