Manipulating our memories of food can influence what we choose to eat, UCI study suggests

December 09, 2004

Irvine, Calif., Dec. 9, 2004 -- For the millions of Americans who worry about overeating during the holiday season, there may be hope: A new UC Irvine study suggests changing their memories of food may be a way to influence their eating habits.

With food as the subject, UCI psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted the first scientific demonstration of the effect of false beliefs on people's subsequent thoughts and behaviors.

Loftus' research team conducted two experiments using a series of questionnaires and false feedback to convince people that, as children, they had become sick after eating hard-boiled eggs or pickles. As a result, these people later indicated they would avoid these foods -- proving that false memories can influence future behavior, even swaying fundamental decisions about what to eat.

"We set out to test what we've known anecdotally -- that false beliefs have repercussions, affecting what people later think and do," said Loftus, whose research over the past three decades has changed the way scientists and the public view the malleable nature of human memory. "We proved this; however, we also discovered that food is a surprisingly easy target for memory manipulation."

The findings are to be published in the February issue of "Social Cognition."

For the study, researchers asked 336 college student volunteers to fill out a food history questionnaire about their childhood eating experiences. A week later, they were presented with a computer-generated food profile that included the falsehood about getting sick after eating either a hard-boiled egg or a pickle. More than 25 percent confirmed that they "remembered" getting sick or "believed" that they did. Then in a questionnaire about party behavior, participants were asked how likely they would be to eat specific foods at an afternoon barbecue. Compared to a control group, the believers were more likely to avoid the pickles or hard-boiled eggs.

Still, Loftus explained, there may be limits to influencing eating habits. In another just-completed study using similar methods, Loftus convinced people they had become sick from eating potato chips as children. Although the participants "believed" the falsehood, they did not alter their behavior for this popular, hard-to-resist item. "Now we're speculating that avoidance may only occur if the food item is novel," Loftus said. "For instance, it worked with strawberry ice cream."

On the other hand, the researchers tackled a healthy food by implanting a phony memory of a positive experience with asparagus. They found that people later showed increased inclination to eat the green spear-like vegetable.

"The idea that we can tap into people's imagination and mental thoughts to influence their food choices sounds exciting, but it's too preliminary to tell how this might be applied in the dieting realm," cautions Loftus. "Our next step is to obtain grant funding to experiment with real food."

Loftus' colleagues in the food studies are Daniel Bernstein of the University of Washington and Cara Laney and Erin Morris of UCI.

Q&A With Elizabeth Loftus

Q. Why did you choose to experiment with food?

We were looking for a way to assess whether false memories have consequences for people, affecting their later thoughts and behaviors, and food seemed a reasonable way to do that. We ended up picking hard-boiled eggs and pickles because we needed items that would likely be in someone's past, but wouldn't be too common.


Q. What findings surprised you?

The implications for dieting hadn't occurred to me until I started seeing the results. The people who believed the false feedback not only showed avoidance for the critical food item (i.e. hard-boiled egg), but also for a closely related item such as egg salad. Now, the idea that you can tap into people's imagination and mental thoughts to influence their food choices sounds exciting. At the same time for a health professional, it's difficult, as it's unethical to lie to patients.


Q. Are there limits on the kind of foods you can do this with? Can you turn people off to fattening foods?

The process seems to work best when the food item is somewhat novel. Planting false memories of getting sick on strawberry ice cream led to food avoidance, but avoidance did not occur for potato chips.


Q. What are the implications of this finding in relation to your other research?

This is a continuation of my research on the malleability of memory. As we learn more about the link between a false belief and consequences, we may be able to understand what happens in the real world. This is basic science about memory distortion, we have yet to explore the possible applications.


Q. How can people recognize when a false memory has been implanted?

As far as we know, people can't determine when they've had a false memory implanted. In our research, we debrief after each experiment, so participants know what happened.
-end-
About the University of California, Irvine: The University of California, Irvine is a top-ranked public university dedicated to research, scholarship and community service. Founded in 1965, UCI is among the fastest-growing University of California campuses, with more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students and about 1,400 faculty members. The second-largest employer in dynamic Orange County, UCI contributes an annual economic impact of $3 billion.

UCI maintains an online directory of faculty available as experts to the media. To access, visit: www.today.uci.edu/experts.

University of California - Irvine

Related Memory Articles from Brightsurf:

Memory of the Venus flytrap
In a study to be published in Nature Plants, a graduate student Mr.

Memory protein
When UC Santa Barbara materials scientist Omar Saleh and graduate student Ian Morgan sought to understand the mechanical behaviors of disordered proteins in the lab, they expected that after being stretched, one particular model protein would snap back instantaneously, like a rubber band.

Previously claimed memory boosting font 'Sans Forgetica' does not actually boost memory
It was previously claimed that the font Sans Forgetica could enhance people's memory for information, however researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, have found after carrying out numerous experiments that the font does not enhance memory.

Memory boost with just one look
HRL Laboratories, LLC, researchers have published results showing that targeted transcranial electrical stimulation during slow-wave sleep can improve metamemories of specific episodes by 20% after only one viewing of the episode, compared to controls.

VR is not suited to visual memory?!
Toyohashi university of technology researcher and a research team at Tokyo Denki University have found that virtual reality (VR) may interfere with visual memory.

The genetic signature of memory
Despite their importance in memory, the human cortex and subcortex display a distinct collection of 'gene signatures.' The work recently published in eNeuro increases our understanding of how the brain creates memories and identifies potential genes for further investigation.

How long does memory last? For shape memory alloys, the longer the better
Scientists captured live action details of the phase transitions of shape memory alloys, giving them a better idea how to improve their properties for applications.

A NEAT discovery about memory
UAB researchers say over expression of NEAT1, an noncoding RNA, appears to diminish the ability of older brains to form memories.

Molecular memory can be used to increase the memory capacity of hard disks
Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have taken part in an international British-Finnish-Chinese collaboration where the first molecule capable of remembering the direction of a magnetic above liquid nitrogen temperatures has been prepared and characterized.

Memory transferred between snails
Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro.

Read More: Memory News and Memory Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.