As long as I’ve started the food theme, I’ll share another food-related piece of research that gives us insight into the nature of impulse control.

Baba Shiv, a professor at Stanford University, studied two groups of undergraduates.  Members of one group were asked to remember a two-digit number, while members of the other group were asked to remember a seven-digit number.  Then, each student was instructed to walk down the hall.

At the end of the hall, the experimenter presented each student with two snack options: either a slice of chocolate cake, or a bowl of fruit salad.

Results showed that the participants who were asked to remember a seven-digit number were about twice as likely to choose the slice of cake compared to the students who were asked to remember a two-digit number.

Professor Shiv explains that the extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain, thereby interfering with the brain’s impulse control mechanisms.  In other words, when the brain is overtaxed, then the part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control cannot do its job effectively.

The more we’ve got on our minds, the easier it is to give in to temptation.

What does this mean for our personal finances, our financial change endeavors, and for the holiday shopping season that is now upon us?

One thought is this: Perhaps we could resist the temptation to overspend by planning out our purchases in a quiet environment, free from the distraction of crowds and music and signs and flashing lights.  It might mean taking a few quiet moments at home to browse online before hitting the malls.  Then write down exactly what you plan to purchase, so you don’t have to juggle all of that information in your memory.  This would allow you to enter the store with a clear and focused mind.

What other ways can we apply the lesson of the chocolate cake experiment?  Send your ideas!