Staying away from that two-pound double cheeseburger or that delicious serving of guacamole nachos can sometimes be a mental tug-of-war between “It’s so delicious, I want it,” and “I shouldn’t eat it, there are so many calories!” But if there’s someone in the room who just happens to say something as insignificant as “calm down,” even if it’s not related to your hungry thoughts, it might just be enough to get you to unconsciously choose something different.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found just that; words unrelated to certain actions subliminally influenced another person’s self-control, their study says.  

They asked a group of participants to push a computer key when they saw the letter “X,” however, whenever they saw the letter “Y” on the screen, they were told not to touch the key. While these letters showed up, action messages quickly flashed on the screen. Action messages included “run,” “go,” “move,” “hit,” and “start,” while inaction messages included “still,” “sit,” “rest,” “calm,” and “stop.” Random words, such as “rnu” and “tsi” also showed up.

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The participants were hooked up to electroencephalography (EEG) recording equipment, which measured voltage fluctuations that came from the brain’s neurons. With the equipment attached, researchers saw that whenever they were exposed to action messages, activity in their brain’s self-control processes decreased. However, whenever they were shown inaction messages, activity in their brain’s self-control processes went up.

“While many psychological theories state that actions can be initiated automatically with little or no conscious effort, these same theories view inhibition as an effortful, consciously controlled process,” the researchers wrote. “Although reaching for that cookie doesn’t require much thought, putting it back on the plate seems to require a deliberate, conscious intervention. Our research challenges the long-held assumption that inhibition processes require conscious control to operate.”

Conscious control could even use up more brainpower than unconscious control. If ramping up self-control only involves hearing a few words while engaging in something, it could mean a lot less work and frustration than having to use your willpower.

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According to a study on temptation done last month, willpower involves activity in three parts of the brain, including active thought, predominant or impulsive responses, and self-control. According to that study, those who even say to themselves long before a temptation arises that they’ll exercise self-control are more likely to succeed at abstaining from the activity than those who are confronted by the opportunity and fight with themselves about whether or not they should participate.

Researchers said that setting goals and strategizing, or even avoiding temptation altogether, could be the answer, but if the brain can exercise self-control unconsciously, another answer could be to surround yourself with inaction messages … in some sort of way.

Source: Hepler J, Albarracin D. Complete unconscious control: Using (in)action primes to demonstrate completely unconscious activation of inhibitory control mechanisms. Cognition. 2013.