Look, we've nearly all been there: you're stressed out and all you want is to stuff your face with cookies and chips and any other edible guilty pleasure. It's called stress-eating and I have a drawer dedicated to it.
A new study from University of Geneva researchers suggests that while stress can cause us to work really hard for those kinds of rewards, it doesn't increase the feeling of pleasure derived from such treats.
The research, published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, suggests "reward pursuit is not always proportional to the pleasure experienced," the authors write.
In other words, "The greater the effort, the greater the glory" doesn't necessarily apply when you're freaking out.
The study involved a somewhat small group of participants: 36 self-proclaimed chocolate loving college students. To produce feelings of stress, 18 of the students put their hands into ice-cold water, while the others did so with lukewarm water. Researchers measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants' saliva before and after sticking their hands into the water.
After a 10-minute break, the students had the chance to smell chocolate by pressing a handgrip when cued by a visual prompt. The stressed-out group exerted nearly three times more effort to smell chocolate than the chilled-out participants.
But when asked to evaluate how pleasant, familiar and edible the chocolate smell was, the stressed and non-stressed students didn't differ much in their responses.
"Our results also showed that, although participants mobilized more effort to smell the chocolate odor when under stress, they did not report the odor as being more pleasurable," the authors write.
The authors write that previous research suggests motivation for a reward, or "wanting," and the pleasure from that reward, or "liking," operate independently, citing experiments done on rodents. For this study, the researchers wanted to test out the theory on humans, and they write additional studies are needed involving everyday causes of stress, and what that means for more serious habits related to stress.
"Stress plays a critical role in many psychological disorders and is one of the most important factors determining relapses in addiction, gambling and binge eating, " study co-author Tobias Brosch said in a statement. "Stress seems to flip a switch in our functioning: If a stressed person encounters an image or a sound associated with a pleasant object, this may drive them to invest an inordinate amount of effort to obtain it."