It may be possible to talk a dieter into hating strawberry ice cream, but it may be impossible to help people lose their cravings for more popular snacks such as chocolate chip cookies.
In a new study on the power of suggestion, it was found that people could be falsely persuaded that they had once become sick eating strawberry ice cream as children, and then later said they would avoid this food.
Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a distinguished professor, who specializes in memory and suggestion at the University of California, Irvine, says they believe this new finding may have significant implications for dieting.
In their study, Loftus and colleagues at the University of Washington and Kwantlen University College, experimented with more than 200 volunteers, mostly students, who did not know the goal of the study, by using what is called a false feedback technique.
According to Loftus data from the subject is collected about personality and childhood experiences about food.
The subjects are then told the data has been fed into a computer which then produces a profile about childhood experiences with food.
What in fact, the researchers did was to create a printout with predictable associations, such as a childhood dislike of spinach and love of pizza, and then added such features as getting sick on strawberry ice cream, for example, in order to encourage them to think about the getting sick aspect of the experience.
When the volunteers were asked to describe what may have happened, for instance, eating strawberry ice cream at a birthday party and becoming ill, most of the subjects apparently voiced the belief that this had happened as opposed to developing an actual memory.
It seems that 40 percent of the students fell for it, and most of them lowered their preference for strawberry ice cream on a later questionnaire.
Of the volunteers who were given no suggestion, their food preferences did not change, and though some of the volunteers were told they had a bad chocolate chip cookie experience, the suggestion did not work.
Loftus says it also didn't work in a previous experiment they did with potato chips.
The researchers decided that as strawberry ice cream is a rarely eaten food for most people, that might make it more susceptible.
Loftus says before this practice is applied to real situations, it would need to be shown that the effects are longer lasting than just an hour, and then test the principle with real foods placed in front of participants.
She suggests that parents might try it with their children.
Her team is now working on a study trying to persuade people to eat more healthy food and avoid fattening treats.
The study is reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.