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When angry, have a chocolate

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Posted: Friday, September 21, 2012 12:52 am | Updated: 11:31 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community Perspective

“She’s a sweetie” we say about people who are kind and helpful.  

There’s more truth to this expression than we realize, find Gettysburg College psychologist Brian Meier and his colleagues.

Food changes mood. Savoring something sweet does make us more kind and helpful.

In one experiment, Meier randomly divided college students into three groups:

• The Sweet Taste Group: People ate one piece of Dove Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate. Savor it, they were told, don’t just devour it.

• The Non-Sweet Taste Group: People savored one Carr’s Table Wafer Cracker.  

• The No-Food Control Group: These people got nothing to eat.

The students then completed a one-minute survey that had nothing to do with the study. The survey was just a decoy to hide the fact that the experimenters were trying to find out if a sweet taste led to sweeter behavior.

Right after they had participated in this study, the students were told that another professor had just stopped by because he needed volunteers for a new study. But the students would get nothing at all for participating in it. (The students had just been paid $8 to participate in the first study, so participating in another one for free would not be so attractive.)

The students were then asked how many minutes they were willing to give the other professor. 

The students who had savored the chocolate were far more generous in offering their help. The chocolate savoring group volunteered to give about 24 minutes, while people in the other groups volunteered only about 14 minutes. 

People with a “sweet tooth,” who eat a lot of candy, cake and ice cream are more likely to volunteer in many situations.

For example, they were more willing to help with a flood control project in their community. To prevent the Red River from flooding, six million sandbags had been used as a dam. The students who said they had a “sweet tooth” were  more likely to volunteer to spend a day picking up the sandbags.

The “sweet toothers” were also more apt to help out an English professor by taking his survey on their media preferences. These students helped him out even though they had to trudge up four flights of stairs to put their surveys in a box by his office.

Could this knowledge help angry people become sweeter?  

People with “agreeable” personalities, it turns out, have developed a strategy for controlling their aggression in hostile situations.

They recruit sweet thoughts. They don’t let themselves go and act out their anger.

Could people who are provoked learn to recruit such positive thoughts to control their anger and aggression?

To find out, Meier put more than 800 ordinary people in a hostile, competitive situation. They played a computer game and got blasted with an obnoxious noise if they lost to their opponent (who was actually a programmed computer, not a person).

The experimental group got training in how to change ugly thoughts to lovely thoughts. The basic idea was to teach people to create a psychological link between having a negative thought and following it up with a positive one.

Negative thoughts like “kill” or “murder” were flashed on a screen. Right after seeing the negative word, the people saw a positive word flashed on the screen. 

The control group got no training.

The people taught to link ugly thoughts to lovely thoughts were less apt to retaliate when they lost the computer game. When they won the game and got the opportunity to blast their opponent, they didn’t give them a big blast of the obnoxious noise.

The trained group had stopped the common cycle of increasing revenge, where mild aggression stimulates higher levels of aggression, which stimulates still higher levels of aggression, and so on.   

Such training is not going to turn grouches into “sweethearts.” But it does suggest the possibility of sweetening them up with a piece of chocolate.

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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