Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Willpower Pills: The Tic Tac Experiment

Can enhanced mindfulness help a dieter? We recruited five dieters, and gave them a blister pack of placebo pills labeled “Willpower Pills.” We instructed them to spend a few minutes each morning preparing for their day by thinking about how much willpower they would need to avoid food temptation. Each morning, a participant could take up to three of their Willpower Pills, depending on their needs that day. At the end of each day, we sent a text message asking about their willpower that day.

Four of our five participants thought the idea was “crazy, but it worked,” especially since most guessed the Willpower Pills were really just Tic-Tac candies. Even though he felt silly for taking them, 003 told us that they provided a valuable trigger allowing him to organize his expectations for the day, helping him understand the value of thinking about willpower more often.

Our participants ranged from 20 to 57 years old, with varied fitness levels and health, but they agreed that morning mindfulness helped them prepare for the day’s temptations. One participant called them “magic pills” and another called them “encouragement pills.” We heard, “thinking about willpower in the morning keeps it in the back of your mind through the day, so you can power up for the day.”

The participants understood the power of these pills very differently; to some it offered energy for the day, others said it offered confidence, and one said it empowered her. Across everyone, however, it was clear that the act of spending a moment each morning thinking about the day ahead was powerful.

001, our youngest participant, suggested that something like this could apply to many different contexts outside of dieting. He even thought people would pay big bucks for the pills.

002, a busy nanny, found motivation to push through her day both physically and mentally. She told us, “sometimes you need symbols, something to see or feel to be stronger.” Magic pills don’t solve problems, but they provoke the right mindset: “Everything is hard work, but I can make my mind strong.” Consequently, 002 came back from an intense day with her wards and mustered up the willpower to clean her entire house due to our small experiment.

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