The Cognitive Benefits of Chewing Gum

Gum-chewing is often touted as a way to help reduce anxiety in stressful situations. There are plenty of studies on the topic, which are well-summarized in a review of the effects of gum chewing on cognitive aspects such as stress and alertness. The review found some useful and some conflicting results on the topic:

  • Research looking at short-term stress has shown a lack of significant effects of gum-chewing on self-reported stress and anxiety, and contradictory findings on its effect on cortisol levels (which serve as a hormonal stress indicator).
  • Research looking at long-term and chronic stress found that gum chewing may reduce self-reported stress.
  • Gum chewing was found to have a positive effect on subjective alertness. However, the effects on alertness biomarkers and cognitive performance were not consistent (meaning that people claimed they were more alert, but the researchers couldn’t always find physiological evidence for this).
  • Chewing gum was found to sometimes improve reaction time in response to auditory, but not visual stimuli.
  • The effects of gum chewing on memorization and recall are at the moment too inconsistent to paint a clear picture.

 

Picture of chewing gum.

 

Overall, the review concludes that chewing gum may have some beneficial cognitive effects. These effects most likely consist of increasing short-term alertness and reaction times, while potentially also reducing long-term and chronic stress.

In the time since the review was originally published, new research has come out, which corroborates the findings on improvement in alertness and reaction times.[1,2,3] As such, while gum-chewing shouldn’t be treated as a magical solution to anxiety, it can be considered a small psychological trick, which can help you concentrate a bit better.

Since the cost of trying it out is so low, it’s worth experimenting for yourself, and checking whether this trick works for you. Furthermore, even if gum doesn’t help by itself, the placebo effect could be beneficial. Essentially, if you believe that the gum will help you be calmer and more alert, there’s a good chance that it will. Interestingly, you can often benefit from this effect, even if you know it’s a placebo.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Chewing gum might have some short-term cognitive benefits, in terms of increasing alertness and improving reaction times.
  • Chewing gum may also help reduce long-term and chronic stress.
  • It’s worth testing this on yourself, since the cost of trying is low.
  • You may also benefit from the placebo effect (yes, even if you’re aware of it).

 


Use a Simple Self-Distancing Technique in Order to Make More Rational Decisions

“One thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what’s best for LeBron James and to do what makes LeBron James happy.”

-LeBron James, legendary basketball player, when interviewed about his decision to leave his old marketing agency.

It’s hard to set your emotions aside when faced with difficult decisions. Often, these emotions cause us to make the wrong choice, in many areas of life: from our relationships, to our finances, to our habits, and so on. The problem is that setting these emotions aside is easier said than done. However, one way to at least reduce the impact of these emotions, is through a relatively simple shift in our perception.

 

Picture of LeBron James throwing a basketball.

 

How it works

The method described here is based on a study which examined people’s self-talk mechanism: that inner monologue that we all have when we think. The researchers’ starting point was that using your own name or the second person pronoun (you) when thinking about yourself during introspection, promotes emotional self-distancing. This concept is consistent with the construal level theory, which suggests that creating psychological distance in one domain (e.g. linguistically), promotes psychological distance in other domains (e.g. decision making).

The researchers asked participants to recall two personal experiences: one which was anger-related, and one which was anxiety-related. There were two groups of participants:

  • Participants in the first group were instructed to think about themselves in the first person. For example, they would ask themselves “Why did I feel this way?”
  • Participants in the second group were instructed to think about themselves using second person pronouns, or using their own name. For example, they would ask themselves “Why did you feel this way?” or “Why did John feel this way?”

The researchers measured participants’ self-distance during their recollection of their past experiences. What they found was that the simple change in perception allowed participants to increase their emotional self distance when considering these events.

 

A graph which shows how a variation in linguistic perception impacts psychological self-distance. When thinking of events which are anger-related or anxiety-related, using non-first-person pronouns increases self distance compared to using first-person pronouns.

 

This improvement is so important, because increasing emotional distance has been shown to improve individual decision making ability. One study, for example, showed that increasing self-distance reduces decision biases, under a variety of experimental conditions. Another study found that psychological distance improves decision making during information overload. Furthermore, the scientists who conducted the current study, also published the results of several other experiments in the same paper. These experiments showed that self distance helped participants cope better with socially distressful situations; this was true even for individuals who are inherently prone to social anxiety.

 

Summary and Conclusions

  • Avoid using first-person-pronouns (“I”) during introspection and decision making.
  • Instead, use second person pronouns (“you”) or your own name, in order to create psychological self-distance.
  • This self-distance improves your ability to set aside your emotions, and enables you to make more rational decisions.
  • This technique can also help you reduce social anxiety in distressful situations.