Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.
Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss, though people placing bets have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.
Not only do they have those technical issues under their control, they are also highly confident that they will lose weight, otherwise they would never make the bet.
Yet in spite of all that control and confidence, the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future.
Almost everyone fails.
How can this be? How can millions of people worldwide fail to lose weight? You would think that at least a few of them would accidentally do all the right things and lose a few pounds.
In a recent meta-study, 78 academic studies of weight loss attempts were reviewed and their results were recalculated and aggregated. (Haynes, Kersbergen, Sutin, Daly, and Robinson 2018). In other words, the authors statistically re-examined the results of 78 academic studies on weight loss and combined them into one huge academic paper.
Some of the insights they gained were quite surprising.
“We examined peer-reviewed literature published between 1991 and 2017 and found strong evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with a higher likelihood of trying to lose weight and moderate evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with greater use of both healthy and unhealthy weight control strategies. However, those weight loss attempts and strategies did not appear to be translated into healthy weight-related behaviours” (p.357).
“…while individuals who perceived their weight status as overweight were more likely to report trying to consume a healthy diet and increasing physical activity to lose weight, there was no evidence to suggest that these individuals were actually more likely to enact these behaviours than those who did not identify as overweight. …there was evidence of no relationship between perceived overweight and healthy eating habits” (p.359).
“…there was strong longitudinal evidence to suggest that perceived overweight predicts weight gain over time, and this was the case across the majority of participant subgroups” (p.359).
In other words, this study found that people who know they are overweight might try reasonable methods to lose weight — exercise and healthy eating — but were not quite able to accomplish serious weight loss. In fact, the strongest predictor of weight gain is the knowledge you are overweight!
That does not give us very much insight into what specifically causes weight loss efforts to fail, but there is one tantalizing hint that might give us something to address:
“Attempts to lose weight by individuals who perceive themselves as overweight may not necessarily translate into the adoption or appropriate implementation of effective weight control strategies. Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating” (p.359).
“Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating”. It’s not the people do not try to lose weight, the problem seems to be they try in the wrong ways. This study seems to find that unhealthy weight control strategies and “disordered eating” are what keep us from losing weight.
“Unhealthy weight control strategies” and “disordered eating” are eating behaviors that are not quite serious enough to be mental health issues like anorexia nervosa or chronic bulimia. Instead, these are things like obsessive calorie counting, binging, late night eating, abusing laxatives, excessive fasting or chronic restrained eating.
These behaviors are not in themselves things that make us gain weight, but they lead to a breakdown of a healthy eating regimen. These are the ways we undermine ourselves, but taken individually and as one time or occasional behaviors they are harmless. However, when we unconsciously integrate them into our lifestyle they undermine our commitment to healthy weight loss.
Cognition, Behaviors and Weight Loss
The way we think about food and eating has a powerful effect on how we use food to either keep us healthy or make us sick. Our thoughts can undermine our goals or improve the chances of achieving them. Our thoughts have this incredible power because they determine our behaviors — the things we physically do.
Psychologists have a name for this interaction of thoughts and behaviors — Cognitive-Behavioral. Cognitive or cognition refers to internal mental mechanisms like thoughts, memories and intelligence. The inner voice you her when reading or talking to yourself is cognition, so is the process of recalling a memory or making a new one.
Behavior is anything you physically do that you or others can observe and count or measure. If someone can count the times they see, hear or feel you doing something, it’s a behavior. People often confuse emotions with behavior, but emotions are an internal sensation. We can’t see emotions like anger or happiness, only the external physical manifestations, like a frown, furrowed brow, or a smile or laughter. We really do not know what other people are thinking.
We don’t even know what we are thinking much of the time. That is one of the biggest challenges in healthy eating and weight loss. Things we are not even aware of can influence our thoughts, and in turn, our thoughts influence our eating and health behaviors.
Even the most unremarkable things can influence our view of idea of how the world works.
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Noble prize in Economics for his work in Behavioral Economics — the melding of economics and psychology to investigate how people make decisions about numbers and money. Thinking, fast and slow is his landmark book that covers all his very interesting experiments and breakthroughs. This is a must have book for everyone interested in behavioral economics.
In a famous experiment at the University of Oregon, Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Tversky, built a Wheel of Fortune, similar to the one on the televise game show. Unlike the television wheel, the Kahneman/Tversky wheel would stop only on 10 or 65. After spinning the wheel in front of a group of students Kahneman would ask two questions that students were unlikely to know and would there for be forced to guess.
“Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?” and,
“What is our best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?”
Amazingly, students exposed to 10 averages 25% for the two questions, and those exposed to the 65 guessed that 45% of countries in the UN were African. Simply being exposed to larger or small numbers influenced students estimates of the national membership of the UN.
Kahneman and Tversky call this the “anchoring effect”. When we are exposed to a high number, we tend to make higher estimates of anything asked of us afterwards. Students exposed to a higher number in the Wheel of Fortune experiment tended to guess that African nations were a larger part of the UN than students exposed to the lower number.
Even though the number was nothing more than a symbol on a wheel and did not represent quantity or anything else.
In a similar experiment, real estate agents were asked to access the value of a house that was on the market. They visited the house and were given a booklet with pertinent facts. However half the agents had a booklet listing an asking price far above the actual price, while the other half had a booklet with the asking price substantially lower than the real asking price.
Sure enough, the agents exposed to the higher false asking price suggested a higher asking price than those who were exposed to the lower false asking process. Given the results of the Wheel of Fortune experiment, that is no surprise.
In an interesting twist, all the agents were convinced the price they saw had no effect on their recommend price. After all, they assured the experimenters, they were professionals who did such recommendations for a living and were practiced enough that an unrealistically high or low would not influence them.
The experiment was repeated with a group of business students. The business students submitted recommendations that were within 8% of the real estate agents. The only difference was that the students admitted the fake asking prices influenced their price recommendations.
This gives you an idea of how suggestible we are. Think about that. The thing that makes us unique among all other animals on earth — our cognitive abilities — is at the mercy of any random number that happens along our path. Our guesses and assumptions about the world are really reflections of our most recent experiences.
The influence of external factors like exposure to numbers or inaccurate information is only one way our efforts at weight loss are undermined. We also have to think about internal errors in thinking– what psychologists call cognitive errors, like recalling information inaccurately or confusing a set of facts with the wrong issue. Even when we get those things right there are many other variables that sabotage our efforts to eat healthy and lose weight.
This might have something to do with why so many people cannot understand why their weight loss efforts come to naught.
We cannot ignore the powerful effect of our own behaviors on the way we think about weight loss.
Recently I was discussing weight loss with a young woman who admitted she was making no progress in her weight loss efforts. She was telling me about her diet and described increasing he proportion of vegetables in her diet. As she was telling about this, she wrinkled her face into an expression of disgust and described vegetables as “rabbit food”.
This was another example of the anchoring effect, except this time with facial expressions and words instead of numbers providing the anchor. This young woman had no idea she was undermining her diet efforts simply by her words and facial expression.
In a famous experiment that opened the door to the relationship between facial expressions and mood, experimenters simply asked subjects to hold a pencil in their mouths while they rated the humor of cartoons (Strack, Martin and Stepper 1988).
In one experimental condition participants held the pencil just with their lips, creating a frown, while in another condition participants held the pencil with their teeth, creating something approximating a smile. Astoundingly, the subjects with the forced smile rated the cartoons funnier than subjects in a control condition without the pencil. Subjects holding the pencil with their lips creating a forced frown rated cartoons less funny than a control group.
This experiment has been repeated many times in many different variations and the results are consistent. We influence our own judgements with behaviors like emotionally relevant facial expressions, speech patterns and body language.
This young woman was creating a barrier to her own efforts simply by her negative word and facial expressions about healthy eating. She will be far less likely to maintain a diet with a high proportion of vegetables when she turns eating vegetables into an unpleasant experience.
So how do we control things as superficial as facial expressions and our subconscious reaction to numbers?
I’ll offer some answers here at Medium, and at OnwardThroughtheFog.com
Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.
Haynes, A., Kersbergen, I., Sutin, A., Daly, M., & Robinson, E. (2018). A systematic review of the relationship between weight status perceptions and weight loss attempts, strategies, behaviours and outcomes. Obesity Reviews, 19(3), 347–363. doi: doi:10.1111/obr.12634
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.