MONDAY, Dec. 27, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Raising the prospect of weight loss through mind control, researchers report they may have successfully planted false memories about bad food experiences into the minds of ordinary people.
Only about a third of those tested showed any indication of actually falling for the ruse, and there's no evidence that the new memories will make anyone actually alter what they eat.
Even so, the findings raise plenty of interesting questions, said study co-author and memory specialist Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Irvine. "If this would work for fattening foods, we may be on the brink of a new approach to dieting," she said.
In the study, Loftus and her colleagues tested the power of food-related suggestion. The results are to appear in the February issue of Social Cognition.
In one experiment in the study, the researchers asked 180 undergraduates about their food preferences. Each student ranked 62 different foods on a scale of one to five.
Later, the students returned to view a "profile," supposedly produced by a computer, of their food preferences as children. Half were told they had gotten sick from dill pickles as kids, and the other half were told hard-boiled eggs did the same thing.
Then, the students took several more tests that, among other things, asked about their early food experiences and which foods they'd eat at a barbecue.
After analyzing the new round of test and survey results, researchers found that 25 percent of the students in the pickle group appeared to think -- thanks to the planted memories -- that they had indeed gotten sick from the food as children. The number was 31 percent among students told they got sick from hard-boiled eggs.
The planted memories also affected the willingness of the susceptible subjects to eat the food at a barbecue or even eat a related food (such as egg salad).
Most of the subjects didn't fall for the fake memories, but previous research suggests those susceptible to implanted memories may share traits in common, Loftus said. "If you're somebody who tends to have lapses in memory and attention, you might be more susceptible," she explained. People who are adept at visual imagery may be more prone to suggestion, too.
The next step is to figure out whether implanted memories would actually change behavior and make people eat differently, Loftus said. "We'd like to continue the experiment on and get some handle on how long the suggestion will last."
The power of suggestion might not work for every food, however, A previous study found that people couldn't be convinced to avoid potato chips, perhaps because they had plenty of experience with the food, Loftus said.
Jeannie Moloo, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said the findings are intriguing, especially considering the long-lasting effects of memories about food.
"If you grow up in an environment where foods are talked about negatively, or you've experienced getting sick with a particular food, that can carry into adulthood," she said. "The concern is if it leads to the exclusion of an entire food group in the diet. That potentially may be a problem."
Learn more about false memories from this Scientific American article by Elizabeth Loftus.