Trying to Kick a Craving? Try Playing a Game

Young woman and a smiling chocolate chip cookie.

What’s the last thing you craved? Was it that cup of coffee right after you woke up? Or a cupcake you saw in a bakery? Your brain is constantly assaulted by sights, smells, and sounds that dredge up desires for anything ranging from food to clothes to sex. While those who study the brain have devised a multitude of ways to cut those cravings and keep you from indulging, new research out this week has found that a fun, visual distraction may be enough to get that item of desire out of your mind.

What is a craving?

Most people think about cravings as simply being in state of wanting something. But if you think carefully about what that experience is like, you’ll find that it’s a little more nuanced. Psychologists often use a model called Elaborated Intrusion (EI) theory to describe how cravings work. EI theory looks at cravings as a blend of emotion and thought that rely heavily on visualization. When something desirable comes to mind, you often imagine in your mind what the experience of having it will be like.

For example, craving a cinnamon bun involves picturing going in the bakery door, asking for a bun, holding it in your hand, smelling it, touching it, and tasting it. These positive images you create of the experience before ever obtaining that bun pushes you after it. In most cases, you can overcome those cravings by choosing not to follow them. But in the case of addictive targets of desire, like cigarettes, alcohol or even food, the mental imagery is so enticing it’s almost impossible to overcome.

How did these researchers bring a different approach?

The researchers wondered if a person’s ability to create these mental pictures when craving something was limited. If the brain could only handle so much mental imagery at once, they reasoned, it might be possible to push out any and all cravings using other visually stimulating experiences. The researchers picked the game Tetris as just such a stimulus because playing the game requires a lot of picture processing power. Those playing Tetris have to use the image processors of their brain to imagine how the pieces they see on the screen might be flipped or moved in different ways to make complete lines. On top of that, the game involves brightly colored shapes and text encouragement that helps hold your attention. They hypothesized that playing this kind of a visually challenging game might be enough to cut cravings.

How did the research team use Tetris to go after cravings?

The team recruited 31 college students between 18 and 31 and sent them text messages related to their feelings of craving. They asked whether they were craving anything and, if so, what the craving was for and how intense the craving was on a scale of one to 100. For half of the participants, a “yes” answer led to a request that they play three minutes of Tetris. For the other half, the questionnaire ended after they gave their rating. Those who played Tetris re-rated their cravings on a scale of one to 100 when they were finished.

These text messages were sent at random times throughout the day and always asked whether the respondent had indulged in the experience they craved during their last message. The team then compared respondents who played Tetris against those who didn’t.

What did the researchers find?

The team found that playing Tetris cut the participants’ cravings by about 14 percent. When the researchers looked at how likely the participants were to indulge after playing the game, they found that Tetris players indulged about as often as those who didn’t play Tetris. But they point out that their population wasn’t necessarily motivated to cut down on their cravings the way someone on a diet might be. Other research has found that those who want to cut down on a habit, like overeating for example, both drop cravings and how often they indulge when they use visual stimulation to distract them from cravings.

How does this study apply to me?

Next time you’re craving something that you’re trying to cut out, try playing a game on your phone or doing something visually exciting for a few minutes. This research indicates that playing video games can crowd out enticing mental images of indulging in your craving, making them weaker when you get back to what you were doing.