Self-Awareness, Task Failure, and Disinhibition: How Attentional Focus Affects Eating


  • This research was supported by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We thank Lynn Kozlowski, Patricia Pliner, and Dianne Tice for their comments on this manuscript.

Address correspondence to Todd F. Heatherton, Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.


ABSTRACT Dieting and nondieting subjects were given either failure or neutral performance feedback on a problem-solving task. Failure subjects were then assigned to one of three self-awareness conditions: One group was forced to watch a video clip of themselves failing on the problem-solving task, one group was asked to watch a distracting video clip on bighorn sheep, and the final group was asked to sit quietly for 10 minutes. Subjects were then allowed to eat as much ice cream as they wanted. Only in those conditions which allowed—or promoted—low self-awareness (the failure/distraction and simple failure condition) did dieters show disinhibited eating. In the failure/videotape condition, which enforced high levels of self-awareness, eating in dieters remained inhibited. This supports the proposal that a reduction in self-awareness is necessary for lifting of inhibitions. Eating in nondieters was reduced in the failure/videotape and simple failure conditions, possibly because of the autonomic correlates of distress.