Are you craving something right now? Would you happily just give in and track down that chocolate bar, or rather find a fool-proof way to switch your focus onto something less calorie-packed? Researchers at the School of Psychology in Plymouth have found that playing the classic computer game Tetris could reduce intrusive thoughts about food or drugs like nicotine, alcohol and caffeine.
Jessica Skorka-Brown led the research, published in the journal Appetite. Before the test, students were asked if they were craving anything at that moment. Surprisingly, 67% reported cravings of some sort, nearly two-thirds of which were for food or drink, with caffeine and nicotine also popular.
After rating their levels of craving, half of the participants played Tetris on a laptop for three minutes and half were confronted with the computer apparently trying and failing to load the game. Ratings of cravings were taken afterwards, focusing on how they felt during playing Tetris or waiting for the game to load. The reported strength of cravings was reduced for everyone, but the craving drop was greater for the people manoeuvring those coloured shapes around the screen. Imagery associated with cravings also decreased more for the gamers.
Distraction tasks for cravings have been tested before, but this is the first study to use natural cravings rather than actively inducing them in the lab.
Jackie Andrade and Jon May relate this finding to their Elaborated Intrusion Theory. This proposes that cravings begin with a trigger – a spontaneous thought –which is either ignored and disappears, or starts to nag away. According to their theory, the development from trigger to fully-fledged craving depends on visual imagery. Hence, a highly visual activity like playing Tetris should be particularly effective at suppressing cravings. By contrast, actively trying not to think of the object of your immediate desire is unhelpful. It’s a bit like being told not to think of a pink elephant – you start to imagine that very thing.
This doesn’t mean that computer games are a sure-fire route to avoiding temptation. Cravings only dropped slightly rather than disappeared, and there was a lot of variation in cravings that the Tetris effect couldn’t account for.
More research is also needed to establish the importance of the visual nature of the task, compared with, for example, just doing mental arithmetic or trying to remember the words of a song. And if your craving is to play Tetris, then perhaps, as Oscar Wilde said, your best policy is just to give into temptation.
Authors’ version of the original paper.
Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2014). Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings. Appetite, 76, 161-165.