The Scientific Reason You Get Cravings - And How To Fight Back!

“We have done it!” Thought James Olds, “we have found the happiness center of the brain!"

The year was 1953. James Olds and fellow psychologist Peter Milner had been stimulating various areas of the brains of rats to determine how that would affect their behavior. [1

One day, they stimulated an area of the midbrain that the researchers were sure was connected to happiness. Whenever they triggered it, the rats seemed to be in a state of complete euphoria.

Even more convincing, they witnessed the remarkable things the rats were willing to do to get another “hit” of stimulation. They would go wherever the researchers wanted – even over electrocuted floors that burned them – to get their happiness center stimulated. Naturally, Olds and Milner assumed that the rats were doing this because the hit was so pleasurable that it was worth the pain to get it. 

After several tests with rats, the researchers turned to humans to see if they could be given the same blissful feeling. If so, that would mean big things for the treatment of mental illnesses like depression.


Sure enough, the humans acted in the same way. Olds and Milner set people up with the ability to stimulate this area of their brains by simply pressing a button. Subjects kept hitting the “stimulate” button over and over again until the researchers had to physically stop them from continuing.

It seemed as if these people had reached an extreme level of euphoria. However, when asked what the subjects felt from the shock, it was not euphoria at all. The shock was actually frustrating them! It turns out that each shock did not produce happiness, but the promise of happiness

Olds and Milner had not discovered the area of the brain connected to happiness, but the part of the brain connected to desire. The brains of these subjects kept saying, “press that button and you will be happy!” But the actual happiness never came.

This area of the brain is the same one that is stimulated when you see the dessert tray roll by, when you roll the dice in craps, or your favorite store has a sale. It is telling you “get this and you will be happy!”


For millions of years, humans were weak and vulnerable creatures. We stood less than 5 feet tall, we were slow and our muscles were relatively weak compared to other animals.

We were also in a perpetual state of starvation. Food was scarce on the Great Plains of Africa – unfortunately there wasn’t a gazelle on every corner like there are restaurants today.

So when we did see a gazelle to be hunted, we needed extra motivation to make up for the fact that we were starving and weak. So our brains promised us, “eat that gazelle and you will be happy!” [2]

In the brain, this triggers a release of a chemical called dopamine. This increases our focus, energy and desire to get the reward that we seek. We genuinely believe that if we get it, we will be happy! This chemical saved our species from starvation because it gave us the motivation we needed. And when we caught the gazelle, we were indeed happy - we finally got to eat! 

However, this happiness could never last. After all, the next day we were hungry again! So our brains needed to give us that same desire to hunt down the next gazelle. If we actually were satisfied or fulfilled by eating the first gazelle, then we would not have been able to gain that same focus and motivation that ensured the survival of our species.

Back in modern society, this release of dopamine is still triggered anytime we see the promise of something that we desire.

The promise of delicious food.

The promise of fast cash from gambling.

The promise of fun from shopping.

And just like our ancestors, it will never actually bring us the fulfillment we seek. Tomorrow we will wake up and need to once again “hunt down” our object of desire.

So we continue to eat, we continue to gamble, and we continue to shop for things that we believe will bring us happiness. When, in reality, we will never be satisfied. We will always seek out that next “hit” that we believe will finally bring us the happiness we desire.


Luckily, now that you know why you get a craving in the first place, you have already won half the battle. You know that the happiness your brain is promising you will not actually last - because it can't.

However, having this knowledge does not mean that saying “no” to a craving will be easy. Just like knowing that doing homework will get you good grades does not mean that doing homework is easy. But there are several strategies that you can use to fight back against the feeling of craving.

Here are 3 things you can do to fight back against a craving:


If you catch yourself craving something tempting, slow down. Take a moment to think about what is happening in your brain and how it is trying to motivate you.

Simply by taking this moment to think, you will activate the part of your modern brain that is in charge of impulse control. This will help you think about your higher goals and make the right decision. [3]

So take 5 deep breaths, remember the fact that the desire you feel will not actually lead to happiness, and think about how this decision will affect your long-term goals. This may seem simple, but it is incredibly effective in helping us push through those heated moments of a craving.

2. POSITIVE PROCRASTINATIONositive Procrastination

If that method does not work and you still feel like you must give in, try a tactic known as positive procrastination.

Your brain has evolved to believe that it needs to “act now” in order to get a reward – you need to think fast in order to catch a gazelle! But in this day and age, the decision of whether or not to give in to a craving is probably not life and death.

The next time you face a craving, put the decision off for just 10 minutes. These 10 minutes will calm your reward center down and allow you to make a more rational decision. [4]

Then, even if you do eventually decide to give in, you can take solace in the fact that you will have an extra 10 minutes to savor the prospect. But in all likelihood, you will notice that you don't need that reward as badly as you once thought!


When we are trying to resist a craving, we usually tell ourselves that we “can’t” indulge.

I can’t cheat on my diet.

I can’t go over my budget.

I can’t skip my workout.

But research has actually proven that there is a better way to resist – “I don’t”.

I don’t cheat on diets.

I don’t go over budgets.

I don’t skip workouts.

Repeat both the “I can’t” statements and “I don’t” statements aloud. Doesn’t “I don’t” feel more empowering? This change in language is so powerful that those who use “I don’t” are actually almost twice as likely to resist the craving! [5]

The next time you get a craving for something, simply resist it by saying “I don’t”. You will feel much more powerful and dedicated to your long-term goal!


As a final note, if the above tactics did not work for you and you gave into the craving, do not feel guilty. Feeling guilty is the natural response to indulging in a craving, but it is only going to make things worse.

Not only will you not be able to enjoy the thing that you craved, but the feeling of guilt will also drain your willpower. This means that even though you gave into the craving, your willpower muscle will still be as tired as if you had resisted it. [6]

Instead of feeling guilty, take a moment to reflect on the situation without placing any judgment. Did indulging in the craving really give you the happiness that you thought it would? How did you get into the situation where you ended up with a craving? Is it possible to avoid this situation in the future?

If you can look at the situation from an objective perspective, you will not only feel less guilty about indulging, but you will also be able to set yourself up for success in the future!


When it comes to cravings, self-control is much easier when we remember that the brain is not made for the modern world. It is programmed to help us accomplish the most basic needs of our survival.

The reward center has played a big part in the survival of our species as we once needed that extra motivation to make up for our lack of strength and energy. But in today’s society, we have the ability to dream of higher aspirations than merely eating, sleeping and having sex. 

The next time your brain tempts you with a promise of happiness: recognize what's happening, take a 10 minute break, use empowering language and remember your higher goals. After all, it is accomplishing these higher goals that will lead to your real happiness!


  1. Olds, J., & Milner, P. (1953). Positive Reinforcement Produced By Electrical Stimulation Of Septal Area And Other Regions Of Rat Brain. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 419-427.
  2. Dunbar, R. (2003) TSB: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective." Annual Review of Anthropology 32.1 : 163-81.
  3. Segerstrom, S., Hardy, J., Evans, D., Winters, N. Pause and plan: Self-regulation and the heart. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, xiv, 181-198.
  4. Mcclure, S., Ericson, K., Laibson, D., Loewenstein, G., & Cohen, J. (2007). Time Discounting for Primary Rewards. Journal of Neuroscience, 5796-5804.
  5. Patrick, V., & Hagtvedt, H. (2012) "I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior. Journal of Consumer Research 39.2: 371-81
  6. Adams, C., & Leary, M. (2007). Promoting Self–Compassionate Attitudes Toward Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), 1120-1144.