There is a theory that posits mental imagery is central to craving. Therefore, cravings should decrease when a visual task unrelated to the craving is performed. Psychologists from Plymouth University’s Cognition Institute in the UK tested this theory, which is called Elaborated Intrusion Theory (EI), by performing a study in which a three-minute visual task was either assigned or not assigned. After the task was completed, participants’ cravings for cigarettes, alcohol, and food were rated on their vividness, strength, and intrusiveness. Those who were assigned a visual task played Tetris for three minutes. Those not assigned a task were told that Tetris was loading, and those participants simply waited for the game to load for three minutes. Then they were then asked to rate their cravings. The findings of that study showed that those who were able to play Tetris for three minutes rated their cravings at a number that was, on average, 24 percent lower than those who waited for three minutes for the game to load but could not play it. The study’s authors say their findings support Elaborated Intrusion Theory (EI). They stated that “by playing Tetris, just in short bursts, you are preventing your brain creating those enticing images and without them the craving fades.” But this study and its findings could just as easily be viewed from another angle.
One could just as easily infer from these findings that cravings increase when expectations are frustrated. The second group had to endure two separate frustrations: waiting for software to load on an electronic device and being stopped short of ever getting to use that software. Additionally, one can assume with some certainty that the majority if not all of the participants had either played or were familiar with Tetris, or a Tetris-like game such as Candy Crush. Both are wildly addictive and successful games. Participants were probably excited about playing Tetris. The game has been around a long time, since the 1980s, and according to its website 125 million Tetris products have been sold since that time, and the number continues to grow.
For the participants in the study who were told they were going to get to play Tetris but instead had to wait for three minutes for a game to load that they never got to play, the addictiveness of the games themselves could account for the reported increased levels of cravings. Video games themselves galvanize cravings. Commonly, people cannot stop playing them even though they want to. Flappy Bird, anyone? This is a phenomena about craving in and of itself, and pacifying one craving by satisfying another is nothing new. And reaching out to one craving such as cigarettes, alcohol, or food when another craving such as video games has been dangled in front of one’s face but never realized is not breaking news either.
That being said, one of the study’s authors, Professor Jackie Andrade, indeed points something out that most addiction experts would agree with: “Episodes of craving normally only last a few minutes, during which time an individual is visualizing what they want and the reward it will bring. Often those feelings result in the person giving in and consuming the very thing they are trying to resist.” But experts who research cravings for alcohol, food, and cigarettes divert from Andrade in that they recommend becoming more aware of the cravings, not less aware. This practice is called mindful awareness and is an integral part of almost all programs that help people overcome addictions, of which cravings are a (or the) major obstacle. Mindful awareness is the polar opposite of what Andrade and colleagues advise, which is distraction from one craving by replacing it with another potentially addictive activity. Replacing one craving with another is not an optimal solution for reducing cravings. Additionally, the study’s findings may be skewed by the fact that being told one is going to get to play Tetris plus waiting as game is supposedly loading for three minutes, and then not even getting to play it creates the same effect: one simply turns to another craving because one was “cheated” from the other.
By Donna Westlund
Science World Report