Want to feel better about eating that luscious piece of chocolate cake? Here’s one way to make it guilt-free: Have a friend invite you to share it.
That’s because we don’t feel guilt or regret about diet-busting choices when someone else takes the initiative, researchers reported in a study published in The Journal of Consumer Research.
“In our research we found that if eating a [goody] is someone else’s idea, we feel less guilty and psychologically more vital, compared to when it is our own idea,” says the study’s lead author, Fangyuan Chen, a doctoral student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “The reason is the perceived responsibility for the negative consequences associated is lower.”
Chen and her co-author set up a series of experiments to see if people’s guilty feelings about eating calorie-laden foods depended on how much of a choice they felt they had.
In one experiment, the researchers told a group of volunteers to taste two foods: a chocolate brownie and a baby carrot. A second group was told they could either choose to do food tasting or to write a 300-word essay on the current relations between the United States and China. Everyone in the second group chose to do the food tasting.
Afterward the volunteers were asked to fill out questionnaires that asked, among other things, how much they enjoyed the foods, whether they felt guilty eating them, and how good they felt overall.
As it turns out, the volunteers who were only given the option of food tasting felt less guilty and had an overall better mood or “vitality” than those who had the option of writing an essay instead of food tasting.
“Since guilt has a negative influence on vitality, if we can minimize guilt while keeping the enjoyment of the vice, vitality should go up,” Chen says. “That is why when a friend orders a delicious desert for you and sort of ‘forces’ you to indulge, your guilt is reduced but you still get to enjoy the vice and so you experience an increase in vitality.”
That makes a lot of sense to Adee Feiner, who says she enjoys sugary snacks more when she shares with a friend.
“It’s more enjoyable and I don’t feel like I’m cheating on my diet — as opposed to going to a grocery store and buying something to eat,” she says.
For Tsara Shelton, it's only polite to share. “You feel kind of bad if you don’t say yes if a friend offers you a piece of pie,” says Shelton,39, of Teague, Texas. “And if you say yes, it’s far more enjoyable than if you did it on your own.”
Chen’s co-author suspects that the effect will come into play even if you are the one who makes the suggestion. “Discussing it with a buddy — and having that buddy say ‘yes’ — reduces the extent to which you feel solely responsible for the decision,” says Jaideep Sengupta, China Estates professor of Business and Chair of Marketing at the university. “And the minute that happens, the benefits kick in – reduced guilt and therefore increased vitality.”
To psychologist Edward Abramson, it’s another version of “the devil made me do it.”
“If social pressure or circumstances dictate you should choose to have a snack that is calorically dense, you are almost obligated to do it,” says Abramson, a professor emeritus at California State University at Chico and author of “Emotional Eating.”
“You get to feel virtuous that you are not having the whole thing on your own. And you’re doing a good deed for a friend.”
Ultimately, it’s a way of having your cake and eating it, too.
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently published “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry.”