In previous articles about weight loss, I’ve talked about why will power doesn’t work, that simply being aware of one’s excess weight correlates with gaining even more weight, and my own struggles and victories with weight control.
In this article, I’ll give some examples of why we cannot trust ourselves to manage weight loss and why we need to approach the problem like a nutritional scientist.
In his excellent book, Subliminal, Leonard Mlodinow tells us about a fascinating series of experiments in which researchers manipulated the brain arousal of volunteers, then subjected them to a range of situations in which they made decisions about their relationship with other people, the taste and desirability of different foods or explanations for their opinions or observations.
In one experiment, for example, researchers would show subjects two pictures of randomly chosen people of the opposite sex and ask which was more attractive. Later they would show the subjects the picture they did not choose and ask why they found the person attractive. More than 75% of the time the subjects did not realize the picture experimenter presented them was the one they did not find attractive, but that was not the point of the experiment.
The point was how the subjects would respond when the experimenter asked what they found attractive about the person in the picture. The 75% who did not realize the picture presented was of the person they found to be least attractive identified all sorts of reasons for why they found the person in the picture attractive, even though they had identified it as unattractive previously.
That might be of passing interest, but then researchers repeated the experiment in the context of food.
When food is involved things became very interesting.
In supermarkets, researchers set up taste tests of jams by different manufacturers. Again, they presented two samples and asked for a preference based on taste. They kept track of which brands of jam volunteers preferred and did not prefer, and later gave them a sample that was actually the brand the volunteer did not prefer.
Again, when asked about what they liked about the sample they had earlier stated they did not like, the subjects identified all sorts of characteristics such as taste, consistency, color and sweetness or tartness that determined their preference. In reality, they had already tasted the brand and labeled it as less desirable.
Your Brain and the “Pepsi Paradox”
The Pepsi Paradox has bedeviled soft drink marketers for decades.
The Pepsi Paradox is the fact that in blind taste tests people overwhelmingly rate Pepsi superior to Coke, but a large portion of them prefer Coke when they know what they are dinking.
How can this be?
The portion of our brain that rests directly above our eye sockets is the Executive Center. It is the “mission control” center of the brain where complex networking decisions that coordinates the many different organs of our brain.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) resides in the Executive Center and helps the brain determine whether objects are associated with safe, warm and familiar experiences.
In blind taste tests using some volunteers with damaged VMPC and others with intact VMPCs, both groups preferred Pepsi in the blind condition when they did not know which brand they were drinking. This was no surprise and was no different from what happens when all volunteers have intact VMPCs.
However, the preferences of volunteers with damaged VMPCs were consistent in their preference for Pepsi. The Pepsi paradox disappeared. Regardless of whether they knew what they were drinking, they preferred Pepsi. The lack of a fully functioning VMPC seems to keep previous experiences from influencing judgements about current experiences.
The VMPC is the brain organ that undermines our objectivity, at least when it comes to food preferences.
These have been just a few examples of how our brain can fool us about the most basic of our food preferences and decisions making. There are far more.
The IKEA Effect and Diet Planning
I’ve been talking about how unreliable our thinking and decision-making about food choices can be because understanding our biases and prejudices has a huge effect on strategies for weight loss.
Clearly, successful weight loss requires more than just good intentions and will power. It is important that well thought out planning, an effective strategy and choosing cognitive and behavioral supports long before altering eating or exercise habits.
Why is creating a comprehensive plan so important? Something called the IKEA Effect.
Dan Ariely, a well know social psychologist at Duke University, coined the term to label a cognitive-behavioral trait that all humans seem to have. We value things more if we contribute to their creation, and the more we contribute the more we value the product.
In Ariely’s excellent and very readable book, “The Upside of Irrationality” he tells the story of Pillsbury marketers in the 1940’s trying to popularize various powered mixes for desserts, cakes and pies. Homemakers of the era took great pride in the ability to cook delicious foods from scratch, so marketers of instant food, especially cakes, were facing a serious challenge in convincing women to buy the new instant foods.
A marketing psychologist named Earnest Dicter realized that women who took great pride in creating desserts from scratch might find that simply adding water to a ready-made cake mix disrespectful of their talents. It is another version of technology replacing artisanship and diminishing hard won skills of expertise.
Dicter suggested simply printing an additional instruction on the side of the cake mix box to add one raw egg. The very simple change of adding the egg became a symbol of involvement and connection with the finished cake. That simple gesture resulted in a sudden and dramatic increase in cake mix sales.
Ariely launched a number of experiments exploring why we value things more highly when we have a hand in creating them. What is so powerful, he wondered, about creating something?
In one series of experiments, Ariely had volunteers follow directions to make simple and complex origami swans. He then had the volunteers rate both their own creations and the creations of others. Naturally, he found volunteers rated their own creations higher than those made by others.
However, he followed this with auctions of the origami. Again, he found that the people who created a particular origami swan valued it higher than those made by others did. Furthermore, the more effort put into the origami increased the value people had for their creations. Interestingly, only completed origami was valued; incomplete creations had no value at all.
This is why kits of all kinds are so popular. IKEA has made retail history by not selling completed products, but prefabricated kits the customer assembles. We put more value on things when we put effort into completing them than those that are already complete. Our involvement in creating something gives it value.
Amazingly, animals share this trait.
In the early 1960’s psychologist, Glen Jensen noticed that lab rats would continue to press a bar to get pellets of food even though an effort free bowl of food was available. In a controlled experiment all but one of 200 rats would visit the food bowl, but leave it if a bar dispensing food pellets were available.
Subsequent studies support this conclusion.
Psychologists Brooks Carder and Kenneth Berkowitz performed several animal experiments in the 1970’s finding that rats preferred pressing a bar for food rather than eating “free” food as long as the effort was not excessive (Carder and Berkowitz 1970, 1972):
Rats were trained to eat free food from a dish, then trained to press a lever for similar food. The free food was then presented while subjects were pressing on several reinforcement schedules. Subjects continued to press for reinforcement when one or two presses were required for reinforcement, and ate little free food. When ten presses were required for reinforcement, rats preferred free food and pressed little or not at all. It was concluded that, when work demands are not too high, rats prefer earned food to free food (Carder and Berkowitz 1970 Abstract).
In her fascinating, book Zoobiquity: What Animals can teach us about health and the science of healing, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz tells us about the controversial practice in European zoos of “Carcass Feeding”. Zoos in Europe are cautiously exploring the health benefits of feeding freshly killed prey animals to large predators.
Although the animals have to work harder when eating a carcass they become healthier and seem less anxious than when eating their usual fair of ground domestic meat. Even though it takes far more effort to crush bones and chew through ribs and hooves, big cats seem to prefer it.
The idea of putting forth effort for a rewarding experience is not limited to animals.
In his fascinating book Satisfaction, Neurologist Gregory Berns tells of an experiment by one of his graduate students, Cary Zink (Zink, Pagnoni, Martin-Skurski, Chappelow and Berns 2004):
It occurred to Zink that if we value money only because it has value, the pleasure center of our brain — the striatum, a structure in the mid brain at the top of the spinal column — would have a consistent reaction no matter whether an individual perceives they are earning money or simply accepting it.
However, if earning money has value, aside from the value of money, our striatum pleasure center should react more strongly when we perceive we have put effort into earning money.
And that is exactly what happens.
Subjects required to press a button in order to receive a reward generated more activity on the striatum than those who didn’t. Pressing a button in an fMRI machine may seem trivial, but it represents effort. Even that minimal effort generated a large increase in striatum activity indicating a pleasurable experience. The reward is in the effort we put into earning, not strictly in the tangible payoff itself.
What this tells us
First Mlodinow tells us how difficult it is for us to think about our eating habits. We say we like the taste of something, but if we are misled, even just a little, we will make up all sorts of reasons why we like the food that we never said we liked.
The Pepsi Paradox illustrates that we have brain structures that emphasize past experiences and opinions to the extent that we have trouble realizing we like one thing more than another.
Finally, Ariely, Berns and Zink make convincing arguments that we value things we create more than things others create, and that we are hard wired to feel pleasure when we earn something.
Putting this all together, we find evidence to support the idea that we are not very good monitors of our eating behaviors. We are easily misled and confused. Even in the best of circumstances, we are very bad at objectively examining our thoughts and behaviors related to eating and weight loss.
What does this tell us about how we need to go about losing weight?
For one thing, it is clear that we must put far more effort into weight loss than simply following a diet we read in a book or magazine. It’s not that diets in books and magazines are flawed, although many of them are. The biggest problem lies within us — we just don’t do a very good job of thinking clearly about food, eating and nutrition. Finding a good weight loss program is easy. The hard part is removing the unconscious thoughts and behaviors that undermine us.
We have to remove ourselves from our weight loss efforts.
But how the heck do we do that? How can we remove ourselves and still have influence over what we do?
Scientists face the same problem. They are searching for truth, but if they allow their personal biases and prejudices to influence their research, grant money will dry up and professional reputations become tarnished.
So how do scientists do it?
They measure everything of importance, record those measurements and examine them for changes. This is “data collection and monitoring” and it is at the heart of determining why things occur.
Let’s revisit Berns, Ariely and Zink for a moment. Their message seems to be that we have more value for things we have a hind in creating. The more effort we put into creating something the more value we place on it. That is the IKEA Effect.
When we follow a diet plan like the Mediterranean Diet, we are simply along for the ride. Someone else came up with that diet, and we are just following his or her lead. “Eat more vegetables, and don’t forget the olive oil” is about as invested as we get.
However, when we create our own custom diet, designed for our unique biology, life style and metabolism we will be far more likely to lose weight permanently. This is because we care about the success of our own creation more than the creation of a diet book author.
That is because it takes effort. Not the effort of following someone else’s diet, but the effort of going to the trouble of discovering what works for our individual situation. Learning about how our individual body manages food, and fat, then writing our own diet book with only one reader — us — is the most promising path to permanent weight loss.
It sounds like a huge project, and it is. But like any other huge project if we just take it a step at a time we will eventually get to our destination.
The first step is to educate ourselves about nutrition, eating and weight loss. The fact that you have read this far show that you are already taking the first step. Here are a few other sources of knowledge to digest:
Used copies of these books are no more than five dollars; you can get all three for less than $20.00, including shipping.
(Avoid the Kindle versions — you want physical books that will sit on a desk or table reminding you of the highlighted the parts that are most relevant to achieving your weight loss dreams.)
Do it now. Each book has a link to Amazon. If you can afford $20.00, you can afford to start your education on permanent weight loss.
When you’ve started those, it will be time to begin creating your personal diet plan.
Ariely, D. (2010). The upside of irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home. New York: Harper.
Berns, G. (2005). Satisfaction: The science of finding true fulfillment (1st ed.). New York: Henry Holt.
Carder, B. (1972). Rats’ preference for earned in comparison with free liquid reinforcers. Psychonomic Science, 26(1), 25–26.
Carder, B., & Berkowitz, K. (1970). Rats’ Preference for Earned in Comparison with Free Food. Science, 167(3922), 1273–1274. doi: 10.1126/science.167.3922.1273
Jensen, Glen. (1963). Preference for bar pressing over “freeloading” as a function of number of rewarded presses. Journal of experimental psychology. 65. 451–4. 10.1037/h0049174.
Mlodinow, L. (2012). Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behavior (1st ed.).New York: Pantheon Books.
Natterson-Horowitz, B., & Bowers, K. (2012). Zoobiquity: The astonishing connection between human and animal health (First Vintage Books edition. ed.).
Zink, C. F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski, M. E., Chappelow, J. C., & Berns, G. S. (2004). Human striatal responses to monetary reward depend on saliency. Neuron, 42(3), 509–517.