Diet Tip: The Unexpected Effect of Comfort Food on Bad Moods

81% of people believed comfort foods improve a low mood, but are they correct?

81% of people believed comfort foods improve a low mood, but are they correct?

Contrary to what most people believe, comfort food does not improve a low mood, a new study finds.

The research, published in the journal Health Psychology, found that people who ate nothing recovered from a bad mood just as quickly as those who ate their preferred comfort food (Wagner et al., 2014).

The results come from a study in which people were asked to list the type of foods they ate to recover from a bad mood — chocolate was the most popular.

They then watched an 18-minute video that was guaranteed to make them anxious, afraid and depressed.

After watching the depressing video, (across three different studies) people were given either:

  1. Their preferred comfort food.
  2. A neutral food (a granola bar).
  3. No food.

Then their mood was measured.

Here is how the researchers describe their results, which were pretty clear-cut:

“Comfort foods led to significant improvements in mood, but no more than other foods or no food.

Although people believe that comfort foods provide them with mood benefits, comfort foods do not provide comfort beyond that of other foods (or no food).”

The fact that all groups felt better after a time is likely due to the psychological immune system, our natural ability to recover from bad moods.

So, people were giving the credit to the comfort food for something their minds were doing automatically.

The researchers conclude:

“We found no justification for people to choose comfort foods when they are distressed.

Removing an excuse for eating a high-calorie or high-fat food may help people develop and maintain healthier eating habits, and may lead them to focus on other, food-free methods of improving their mood.

You don’t need comfort food to feel better; the mind will do the trick all on its own if you give it time.”

Image credit: Emilãine Vieira

Eating This For Breakfast Reduces Food Cravings Later in The Day

What you should eat for the ‘most important meal of the day’.

What you should eat for the ‘most important meal of the day’.

New research shows that eating a good breakfast — particularly one rich in protein — boosts a critical neurotransmitter, which may lower food cravings later in the day.

The research comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that many teens skip breakfast and adolescent obesity has quadrupled in the last 30 years.

Dr. Heather Leidy, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology who led the study, said:

“Our research showed that people experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast.

However, breakfasts that are high in protein also reduced cravings for savory — or high-fat — foods.

On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day.”

The study looked at how different breakfasts affected the levels of the critical neurotransmitter, dopamine (Hoertel et al., 2014).

Dopamine is involved in how we process rewards, including cravings for food.

When you eat, a burst of dopamine is initiated, which gives you the feelings of reward.

Dr. Leidy explained how this relates to obesity:

“Dopamine levels are blunted in individuals who are overweight or obese, which means that it takes much more stimulation — or food — to elicit feelings of reward; we saw similar responses within breakfast-skippers.

To counteract the tendencies to overeat and to prevent weight gain that occurs as a result of overeating, we tried to identify dietary behaviors that provide these feelings of reward while reducing cravings for high-fat foods.

Eating breakfast, particularly a breakfast high in protein, seems to do that.”

This is particularly important, Dr. Leidy, given the rising levels of obesity:

“In the U.S., people are skipping breakfast more frequently, which is associated with food cravings, overeating and obesity.

“It used to be that nearly 100 percent of American adults, kids and teens were eating breakfast, but over the last 50 years, we have seen a decrease in eating frequency and an increase in obesity.”

Image credit: Laurence Vagner

Most Unlikely Weight Loss Trick Revealed by Psych Experiment

Wow!!! This is surely one of the most counter-intuitive dieting tips ever.

Wow!!! This is surely one of the most counter-intuitive dieting tips ever.

Looking at endless pictures of foods can make them less enjoyable to eat, a recent study has found.

While a few photos might enhance the appetite, contrary to what you’d expect, people are actually put off the taste by looking at loads of pictures of food.

Professor Ryan Elder, who led the study, which is published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, said:

“In a way, you’re becoming tired of that taste without even eating the food.

It’s sensory boredom — you’ve kind of moved on. You don’t want that taste experience any more.”

What’s happening is that each time you look at another photograph of some food, you get less pleasure from it.

Like the first taste of chocolate mousse giving you a frisson, the first photograph whets your appetite.

But each subsequent picture — like each subsequent mouthful of mousse — is less and less exciting, until you get sick of it.

The Instagram diet

In the studies themselves, hundreds of people looked at and rated pictures of food (Larson et al., 2013).

One experiment had half the participants looking at pictures of salty foods like French fries and pretzels, while the other half looked at sweet foods like ice cream and chocolate.

Afterwards, they rated their pleasure from eating both salty and sweet foods.

People who’d been looking at salty foods gave lower pleasure ratings to the salty foods and people who’d been looking at sweet pictures gave lower ratings to the sweet foods.

The study found that the more pictures they looked at, the less pleasure people got from related foods.

Professor Elder explained:

“You do have to look at a decent number of pictures to get these effects.

It’s not like if you look at something two or three times you’ll get that satiated effect.

That’s good news for food-photo enthusiasts, because, let’s be honest, showing everyone the awesome food you’re eating really is cool.”

For those trying to enhance their pleasure, rather than reduce it, co-author, Jeff Larson, had this advice:

“If you want to enjoy your food consumption experience, avoid looking at too many pictures of food.

Even I felt a little sick to my stomach during the study after looking at all the sweet pictures we had.”

Image credit: Ryan Wiedmaier

The Surprising Impact of Weight Loss on the Emotions

How losing weight affects happiness (it’s not what you think!).

How losing weight affects happiness (it’s not what you think!).

A new study of almost 2,000 overweight and obese adults in the UK has found that those who lost weight were unhappier than those who remained within 5% of their original weight (Jackson et al., 2014).

Although they were physically healthier four years later — with lower blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease — those who lost weight were likely to be less happy.

The finding still held after things like bereavements and serious health issues, which may have affected both weight loss and mood, were taken into account.

Although clinical trials have shown that weight loss is associated with improved mood, this could have been related to a supportive environment in the clinic.

It may work differently for people who lose weight without visiting a clinic — as most people do.

Dr. Sarah Jackson, the study’s lead author, pointed out that the reason may be that diets tend to make you miserable:

“Resisting the ever-present temptations of unhealthy food in modern society takes a mental toll, as it requires considerable willpower and may involve missing out on some enjoyable activities.

Anyone who has ever been on a diet would understand how this could affect well-being.

However, mood may improve once target weight is reached and the focus is on weight maintenance.

Our data only covered a four year period so it would be interesting to see how mood changes once people settle into their lower weight.”

The study comes not long after German research reached a complementary conclusion.

Researchers in Munich followed over 3,000 people over a 7-year period and found that women who put on weight were happier afterwards (Laxy et al., 2013).

This was even true of women who were already overweight when the study began.

As for the new study’s implications, Dr. Jackson was keen to point out that it shouldn’t discourage weight loss:

“We do not want to discourage anyone from trying to lose weight, which has tremendous physical benefits, but people should not expect weight loss to instantly improve all aspects of life.

Aspirational advertising by diet brands may give people unrealistic expectations about weight loss.

They often promise instant life improvements, which may not be borne out in reality for many people.

People should be realistic about weight loss and be prepared for the challenges.”

Image credit:

Why Dieting Does Not Usually Work

“Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight. Forty percent of them have gained even more.”

“Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight. Forty percent of them have gained even more.” Here’s why…

If you’ve ever been interested in controlling your weight, then you need to see this fascinating talk by neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt.

The full talk is at the bottom, but here’s a quick summary.

She begins with a personal confession:

“Three and a half years ago, I made one of the best decisions of my life.

As my New Year’s resolution, I gave up dieting, stopped worrying about my weight, and learned to eat mindfully.

Now I eat whenever I’m hungry, and I’ve lost 10 pounds.”

The talk doesn’t describe a miracle cure, but rather the hard science behind diets and why they don’t usually work.

Here are the main points Aamodt makes about dieting and the brain:

  1. The brain has a set-point for the body’s weight and it’s very difficult to move out of this range (it’s around 10-15 pounds or 5-7kg).
  2. If you lose too much weight, the brain goes into starvation mode, stores up fat and conserves energy.
  3. Successful dieting cannot lower your weight set-point.
  4. Unfortunately your weight set-point can go up over the years as your brain gets used to a higher norm.
  5. People classified as ‘controlled eaters’ (in other words dieters) are more likely to overeat and go on food binges, leading to more weight gain.
  6. Children who diet are more likely to end up overweight and develop eating disorders.

So, what’s the answer?

Mindful eating.

Aamodt continues:

“Give yourself permission to eat as much as you want, and then work on figuring out what makes your body feel good.

Sit down to regular meals without distractions.

Think about how your body feels when you start to eat and when you stop, and let your hunger decide when you should be done.

It took about a year for me to learn this, but it’s really been worth it.”

In other words: go from being a controlled eater to being an intuitive eater.

Mindful eating in this way won’t necessarily help you lose weight — unless you’re the kind of person that eats when you’re not hungry.

What it will do is help you enjoy food more and probably stop you gaining weight.

Apart from anything else, diets usually don’t work, so why torture yourself?

Here’s the clincher:

“Five years after a diet, most people have regained the weight.

Forty percent of them have gained even more.

If you think about this, the typical outcome of dieting is that you’re more likely to gain weight in the long run than to lose it.”

Here’s the full talk:

Image credit: TED

The Effect Being Called ‘Fat’ Has on 10-Year-Old Girls, 9 Years Later

Are girls shocked into changing their lifestyle, or is the result altogether darker?

Are girls shocked into changing their lifestyle, or is the result altogether darker?

Girls told more often that they are fat at 10-years-old are more likely to be obese at age 19, a new study finds (Hunger & Tomiyama, 2014).

The study of 1,166 girls in Northern California found the label could have come from their teacher, parent, sibling, classmate, or a friend.

The increase in weight wasn’t just because fatter girls were more likely to be told they were fat.

The results persisted after the girls’ weight at 10-years-old was taken into account statistically, along with other factors like education, race and household income.

The study’s senior author, A. Janet Tomiyama, was flabbergasted by the results:

“Simply being labeled as too fat has a measurable effect almost a decade later. We nearly fell off our chairs when we discovered this.

Even after we statistically removed the effects of their actual weight, their income, their race and when they reached puberty, the effect remained.

“That means it’s not just that heavier girls are called too fat and are still heavy years later; being labeled as too fat is creating an additional likelihood of being obese.”

Another of the study’s authors, Jeffrey Hunger, explained that:

“Being labeled as too fat may lead people to worry about personally experiencing the stigma and discrimination faced by overweight individuals, and recent research suggests that experiencing or anticipating weight stigma increases stress and can lead to overeating.”

The study, which is published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, also found that the more people that told a girl she was fat, the more obese she became at 19-years-old.

The results are a damning demonstration of the effects of ‘weight stigma’:

“…considerable research underscores the detrimental effects of weight stigma on the physical health and well-being of children and adolescents, and nationally representative, longitudinal data show weight-based discrimination is associated with weight gain among older individuals.” (Hunger & Tomiyama, 2014).

In other words, trying to use shame to get someone to change their lifestyle is unlikely to work:

“Anti-obesity efforts that rely on stigmatizing weight (eg, using harsh language or stereotypical portrayals of overweight individuals) may impede health promotion efforts, as weight stigma is often negatively related to behavior change and thus seems unlikely to result in weight loss.” (Hunger & Tomiyama, 2014).

Image credit: menblog

Food on the Mind: 20 Surprising Insights From Food Psychology

When low-fat foods are bad, why people eat tuna eyes and fried bat, America’s dysfunctional relationship with food and more…

When low-fat foods are bad, why people eat tuna eyes and fried bat, America’s dysfunctional relationship with food and more…

We invest food with so much meaning, and rightly so: it changes our mood, it strengthens our relationships when we eat together and food choices express who we are.

But food has a dark side. We worry about eating unhealthy, about weight gain and how we can control our intake. Eating is not just pleasure; it is also about the struggle with ourselves.

In the last few decades we’ve learnt an enormous amount about the psychology of food. Here are 20 of my favourite findings.

1. America’s terrible relationship with food

Americans have a very dysfunctional relationship with food.

Compared with the French, Belgians and Japanese, Americans get less pleasure from food and are most obsessed with whether it is ‘healthy’ or not (Rozin et al., 1999).

In contrast, the French have fewer hang-ups and enjoy their food the most. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they are also half as likely to be obese as Americans.

Americans, then, get the worst of all worlds: they are more dissatisfied with what they eat, are more concerned about whether it is healthy, try to make more dietary changes and are twice as likely to be obese as the French.

Something has clearly gone badly wrong with America’s relationship with food.

2. You don’t know when you’re really full

We tend to think that the amount of food we eat is a result of how hungry we are. It’s a factor, but not the only one. We are also affected by the size of the plates, serving spoons, packets and so on.

This has been most memorably demonstrated in a study where participants ate out of a soup bowl that was filled up secretly from under the table (Wansink et al., 2005). Others were served more soup in the usual way. Those eating out of the magically refilling bowl had almost twice as much soup but felt no less hungry and no more full.

The moral of this strange tale is that our stomachs provide only crude messages about how much we’ve eaten. Instead we rely on our vision and the eye is easily fooled.

Here’s my healthy eating tip: force yourself to buy smaller packets of everything. Oh, and get rid of your automatically refilling soup-bowls: they’re really doing you no good at all.

3. Fat = bad?

This is a great example of the law of unintended consequences.

Many people have come to believe that high-fat food is bad. Public health campaigns, books and articles in the 80s promoted this idea.

Here are the problems. Not all fats are bad; in fact some are very good, necessary parts of our diet. As a result people avoid small snacks with high-fat content in favour of large snacks with low-fat content. In reality the low-fat snack may have way more calories simply because it’s much bigger.

Because people think that fat=bad, some foods get unfairly categorised as bad for us, while other low-fat foods are supposed to be good. This leads to the situation were people regularly under-estimate the amount of calories in low-fat, ‘good’ foods and over-estimate the calories in high-fat ‘bad’ foods (Carels et al., 2006). The difference in that study worked out to about 35%.

The same is true in restaurants where dishes billed as ‘healthy’ are estimated by diners to contain up to 35% less calories than they really do.

4. It’s never ‘just lunch’

Eating together has powerful psychological overtones.

Lunch is a serious undertaking, especially when it’s with an ex-partner, according to a study by Kniffin and Wansink (2012). They found that compared with things like having a coffee or talking on the telephone when their partners had lunch with an old flame, it provoked the most jealousy.

The symbolic power of eating with other people is strong: it’s never ‘just lunch’.

5. Taste fades with age

As we age, our sense of taste gets weaker. One study found that the ability to detect salt was most affected, as was the ability to detect ‘umami’, now considered one of the basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter (Mojet et al., 2001).

Depending on the exact taste, older people may need between 2 and 9 times as much of a condiment like salt to experience the same taste. Men seem to be particularly affected by this loss in the ability to taste.

The reason is partly that older people have fewer taste buds but mainly that the sense of smell weakens with age. We actually taste much of our food with our noses, so when the nose doesn’t work so well, taste sensation is lost as well.

6. Carrots taste weird for breakfast

We tend to think that there’s something intrinsic about say, a carrot, that means we either like it or don’t. But a simple thought experiment shows this isn’t true.

What if you had to eat a carrot, on its own, at six o’clock in the morning? Does it taste the same then as it does mixed in with other vegetables and meat, and eaten at the ‘usual’ time of day?


The context in which food is eaten affects us much more than we might imagine. This includes the time of day, who is around us and where we are.

7. Fat waitress = fat customer

Here’s a case in point for how context affects what you might choose from the menu in a restaurant. McFerran et al. (2010) looked at how the effect of your server’s body-weight might affect what you choose.

They found that people who were dieting ate more food when encouraged to choose unhealthy snacks by an obese waitress than when the waitress was thin. You might have predicted exactly the reverse result—surely an obese server will put you off your food. Apparently not. Instead it may unconsciously give people who are dieting ‘permission’ to overeat. In other words: if she can overeat, so can I!

Incidentally exactly the opposite effect was seen for those who weren’t dieting. They ended up eating more when the waitress was thin. This may be simply because attractive (thin) people tend to be more persuasive.

8. Fat friends = fat self

It’s probably going too far to say that having fat friends causes us to be fat ourselves, although there is evidence for this. Christakis et al. (2007) found that people’s chance of being obese was increased by 57% if they had obese friends.

Still, it’s very safe to say that people are enormously influenced by the eating behaviour of those around them. We clearly see in studies that people eat more when those around them eat more, and less when those around them eat less. Women seem particularly susceptible to this.

Even while eating on our own we are indirectly influenced in our choices by society—psychologists call these ‘social norms’. When norms are manipulated in experiments, people can be made to eat less or more at will.

One great example is that manly men are thought to eat big meals and feminine women eat small meals. Hence: a steak for the ‘gentleman’ and a salad for the ‘lady’.

9. Eating intentions are beaten by habits

What’s the best way to predict what food you’re going to eat tomorrow? Should I ask about your intentions, your preferences or that diet you’ve just started?

Don’t bother. All I need to do is ask you what you ate yesterday. The best way to predict what you’re going to eat tomorrow is to examine your habits. On average habits tend to trump our best intentions and even our stated preferences.

Changing our eating habits is hard because so many decisions are made automatically, in response to routine situations we find ourselves in, and also because of…

10. Mindless eating

Eating is so routine that we easily zone out from the experience. While our minds are wandering, though, our hands are shovelling it in faster and faster.

Studies have shown that people eat more when they are distracted, like when watching TV or talking with friends (Bolhuis et al., 2013). Unfortunately when not focusing on our food, we tend to eat more and get less enjoyment from it.

This is why one approach that’s used to combat eating disorders and obesity is mindful eating. This is taking smaller bites and paying more attention to what you are eating. Not only do people eat less this way, but they also enjoy it more.

11. Suppressing food thoughts leads to bingeing

Regular readers of this blog will probably be bored witless with me going on about how trying to suppress a thought makes it come back stronger. Sorry. Here we go again.

The same is true for food. People on diets who habitually try to suppress their thoughts about food are more likely to experience food cravings as well as being more prone to binge eating (Barnes & Tantleff-Dunn, 2010).

So, don’t try to avoid, instead try these 8 alternatives to thought suppression.

12. If it’s healthy, you can eat more!

Unfortunately this seems to be a widely held belief, or at least way of behaving. In studies, when people are given the same food, but in one instance it is labelled more healthy, they will eat more than when it is labelled unhealthy. In Provencher et al. (2009), it was 35% more.

It’s another situation in which so-called healthy foods can be bad for us because they encourage higher consumption.

13. Anyone for smoked salmon ice-cream?

Food labels and the expectations they set up have all kinds of effects on how we experience food. Most people have now heard about the studies where they put fancy labels on ordinary bottles of wines and magically people say they taste better. It’s the same effect if you tell people the wine is really expensive (read more here).

Here’s a weirder one, though. Researchers came up with a strange new concoction: smoked salmon ice-cream (Yeomans et al., 2008). But they told some people it was a new type of ice-cream and another group that it was a frozen savoury mousse.

People hated the food when they were told it was a type of ice-cream, but found it acceptable when told it was a mousse.

So it’s all very well putting fancy labels on things, but they’ve got to set up the right expectations.

14. Label it full-fat and it tastes better

Forget about weird ice-cream, what if you take the same food and give it to some people telling them it is ‘full-fat’ and others that it’s ‘low-fat’?

Well, they say that the ‘full-fat’ option tastes better, but they eat less (Wardle & Solomons, 1994). This effect seems to be strongest for people who are most worried about the effect of the food they eat on their health (Westcombe & Wardle, 1997).

15. Bad moods make you eat bad stuff

‘Emotional eating’ is the idea that the emotions, not just hunger, affect how and what we eat. There is some truth to this.

In experiments, generally when people are put in a bad mood, they are more likely to reach for sugary and high-fat snacks. Negative emotions also make people prefer a snack rather than a proper meal and eat fewer vegetables.

Unfortunately good moods don’t necessarily make you eat good stuff. People do seem to eat more when they are in a good mood, but just more of everything rather than specific foods.

16. Healthy foods improve your mood

We know that people who eat more fruit and vegetables are generally more satisfied with life and happier, but we couldn’t be sure that it was the fruit and vegetables that were really causing it.

The very latest research, however, suggests that eating fruit and vegetables one day can actually improve your mood the next day (White et al., 2013). This is based on the idea that micronutrients like folates found in fruits and vegetables can help improve depression.

In their 21-day study White et al. (2013) asked participants to log how much fruit and vegetables they ate as well as their mood. This showed that eating more fruit and vegetables one day actually predicted mood the next day. However, they needed to eat 7 or 8 servings for the effect to be clear. So the oft-recommended 5 portions may not be enough to get the full boost to mood.

17. I won’t have what she’s having

Have you ever been to a restaurant in a group, chosen what you’re going to eat, then heard a couple of other people order the same thing and changed your mind?

According to one study this is a recognisable trend (Ariely & Levav, 2000). One of the causes is the desire to be individual and stand out. Ordering something different seems to express individuality.

The punch-line, however, is that in Ariely & Levav’s study, people enjoyed their second choices less than their first. Sometimes being different for the sake of it is a kind of conformity (see what I did there to make you feel better about ordering the same thing as other people? Go on, have what you really want!).

18. Small changes beat weird crash diets

If you want to lose weight, forget all those weird diets, whatever they are. The latest fad is the 5:2 diet where you eat normally for five days and fast for two. There’s almost no evidence this works. These sorts of extreme diets require big changes to habits, which, as I describe in my book, are hard to make.

Instead of all those crazy diets, it’s much better to make small changes that are sustainable in the long-term: by which I mean the rest of your life. Participants in a recent online healthy eating study made very small sustainable changes to their habits and succeeded in losing weight (Kaipainen et al., 2012). Note that they lost weight without going on a diet!

The habits to adopt included: put down your utensils between bites, use smaller plates, drink water with every meal or snack and don’t eat directly from the package. It was that simple.

19. The Pepsi challenge

In the same way that lunch is never ‘just’ lunch, food is never ‘just’ food. It can also represent an idea and that can influence how we experience the food itself.

Here’s an example: Allen et al. (2008) did a version of the Pepsi challenge. Participants were given either Pepsi or a store-brand cola to assess.

Pepsi’s advertising encourages the idea that life should be exciting and full of enjoyment whereas store-brand cola doesn’t particularly have any marketing message.

The results showed that those who most strongly agreed that life should be full of excitement thought the cola they were told was Pepsi was more tasty. The trick was that often they were just drinking the store-brand cola.

So it’s not just the actual taste that affects our evaluations but the beliefs we have about that food or drink.

20. I’m eating an idea and it’s a tasty one!

What weird foods have you eaten? Fried bat or tarantulas, an ox penis or tuna eyes?

Perhaps you’ve been involved in this type of conversation. People start listing all sorts of exotic foods they once tasted—each trying to outdo the last. What’s that about? According to one theory we don’t just eat food, we eat ideas.

Conceptual consumption‘ is our desire to tick boxes on our experiential CVs.

People know, for example, that bacon ice-cream will taste unusual, but there is a clear pay-off in conceptual consumption. It’s not just bragging rights, they also like the very idea of each of these things and they want to ‘possess’ the experience.

It’s also about self-image. People want to see themselves, and be seen by others, as interesting people who choose a variety of different experiences for themselves. (Hence the fried-bat-chat.)

Image credits: lallou & sea turtle & Kathrin and Stephan Marks & Robert Fornal

The What-The-Hell Effect

What pizza and cookies can teach us about goal-setting.

What pizza and cookies can teach us about goal-setting.

Goal-setting can be a handy way of improving performance, except when we fall foul of a nasty little side-effect.

Take dieting as an example. Let’s say you’ve set yourself a daily calorie limit. You manage to keep to this for a few days until one evening after work, your colleagues drag you out to a restaurant.

Instead of your healthy meal at home you’re faced with a restaurant menu. But things have already gone wrong before the menu arrives. At a bar beforehand you were hungry and ordered a few snacks to share. These, combined with the drinks, have already put you near your daily calorie intake limit.

Then in the restaurant you eat some bread and have a drink while everyone chooses from the menu. You know what you should choose—a salad—but something is edging you towards the steak. You reason that seeing as you’re already over the limit it doesn’t matter now. What the hell, let’s have the steak.

So, just as we’re getting somewhere with reaching our goal, the whole thing goes out the window in a moment of madness.

The what-the-hell effect isn’t just a lack of self-control or momentary lapse; it is directly related to missing a goal. We know this because psychologists have observed the effect in carefully controlled experiments.

The pizza and cookies experiment

Recent research by Janet Polivy and colleagues at the University of Toronto is a good example (Polivy et al., 2010). They invited participants to a study, some who were dieting and others who weren’t. They were all told not to eat beforehand and then served exactly the same slice of pizza when they arrived, then asked to taste and rate some cookies.

Except the experimenters didn’t much care how the cookies were rated, just how many they ate. That’s because they’d carried out a little trick. Although everyone was given the same slice of pizza; when it was served up, for some participants it was made to look larger by comparison.

This made some people think they’d eaten more than they really had; although in reality they’d all eaten exactly the same amount. It’s a clever manipulation and it means we can just see the effect of thinking you’ve eaten too much rather than actually having eaten too much.

When the cookies were weighed it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they’d blown their limit ate more of the cookies than those who weren’t on a diet. In fact over 50% more!

On the other hand, when dieters thought they were safely within their limit, they ate the same amount of cookies as those who weren’t on a diet. This looks a lot like the what-the-hell effect in action.

Avoid the what-the-hell effect

Although we’ve talked about the what-the-hell effect in dieting, it likely occurs quite often when we set ourselves certain types of goals. It could be money, alcohol, shopping or any other area where we’ve set ourselves a limit. If we blow that limit, it’s like we want to release all that pent-up self-control in one big rush by going way over the top.

So, is there any way around this? The research suggests the answer is recognising when the what-the-hell effect occurs, which is:

  1. When goals are seen as short-term, i.e. today or tomorrow compared with next week or next month,
  2. And you’re trying to stop doing something, like eating or drinking.

This suggests the what-the-hell effect can be avoided by having longer-term goals and transforming inhibitional goals into acquisitional goals. Changing short-term to long-term is obvious, but how can inhibitional goals be turned into acquisitional goals?

One famous example is Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics are trying to avoid drinking (an inhibitional goal) but they transform this into an acquisitional goal by thinking about the number of days sober. It’s like they’re trying to acquire non-drinking days.

The same principle can be applied to any inhibitional goal. Dieters can think about the number of days they’ve been good. Procrastinators can forget about their idling and concentrate on producing a certain amount of work each day.

Reframing a goal in this way gives us a good chance of side-stepping one of the problems of goal-setting and keeping us on the straight and narrow.

[UPDATE: There is some very recent evidence the what-the-hell effect may not be as strong as previously thought in dieting (Tomiyama et al., 2009)]

Image credit: Howard Walfish