Distraction reduces satisfaction, leads to overindulgence

Recent studies by researchers at Ghent University in Belgium have suggested that if you tend to do other things or get distracted while eating dinner, you may be running the risk of over-consuming other pleasures later, possibly because the distraction caused you to enjoy yourself less

The study looked at how distraction affects ‘hedonic consumption’, or buying and using products and experiences not necessarily because we need them but because they make us feel good. On any given day, a person may take great pleasure from one or more of such activities, often consuming more hedonic goods than they want or are good for them.

According to the researchers, one reason for this overconsumption may be distraction. When people are distracted while engaged in a hedonic activity, research suggests they are likely to experience less enjoyment from it than if they were fully focused. That may lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and drive more consumption to compensate for that shortfall.

To better understand the role of distraction in overconsumption, the researchers first conducted an experiment involving 122 participants (mostly female and mostly between the ages of 18 and 24) who reported on how much they expected to enjoy their lunch before eating it. They were then asked to eat their lunch under one of three conditions: no distraction, moderate distraction (watching a video), and high distraction (playing Tetris, a popular video game).

After lunch, participants reported on their actual enjoyment, satisfaction, desire for further gratification and amount consumed. They also reported on their snacking later in the day. The study showed that participants who ate while distracted reported lower enjoyment and satisfaction, which was associated with increased snacking afterward and a more general desire for further gratification.

The researchers believe that this proposed effect, which they called ‘hedonic compensation’, likely applies to other activities beyond eating. For example, people who are distracted while watching a movie or playing a game may be more likely to engage in additional consumption (e.g., checking social media) to compensate for a diminished enjoyment of the original activity.

The researchers also followed 220 participants aged 18 to 71 (again mostly female) for a week to investigate this broader effect, beyond food. Participants filled out seven brief surveys per day via their smartphones regarding their hedonic consumption, distraction and satisfaction. As with the food-based experiment, researchers found that when people were distracted during consumption, they were likely to enjoy a product less than they hoped, felt less satisfied, and experienced an elevated need for further gratification.

Overconsumption often results due to a lack of self-control. However, findings from the study suggest overconsumption may also often be driven by the simple human desire to reach a certain level of enjoyment from an activity. When distraction gets in the way, it is likely we may try to compensate by consuming more

The research team plans to conduct further research to replicate and confirm the existence of a hedonic compensation effect. By understanding the key drivers of hedonic overconsumption, the team aims to develop strategies to help prevent its occurrence. If additional research confirms the effect, we have plans to apply interventions that could help people pay more attention to their consumption experiences in an effort to lower the likelihood of overconsumption, said the team.

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