This has been a terrible winter by any measure, but one of the most frightening and dangerous effects has been on highway travel. Snowstorms have caused several multi-vehicle pileups, some fatal. The worst one (so far; it’s only February) happened in Wisconsin where most reports counted at least 50 cars that were involved in the calamity, and others said as many as 90. Whatever the number, you can see in the video that it seemed like an unending chain reaction. You can also see what may have been some of the immediate causes of the pileup: poor visibility from the snowstorm, slick roads, cars too close together, driving too fast for conditions – all adding up to the inevitable outcome.

When people come to me for help to stop unwanted behavior, like emotional eating, binge drinking, or other out-of-control behavior, they’ll often say, “I want to know why it happens.” It’s a very reasonable request. It gives people real satisfaction to understand the root of a problem. It can provide a sense of perspective or a useful insight, and those reasons may make it worth discussing. But I also try to explain that whatever the remote cause might have been, it’s mostly irrelevant in helping them to stop the behavior.

Unwanted behavior is the result of a series of events and experiences that lead up to the present. The original cause may have been pretty benign, but small causes can build on each other until they develop into very large effects. Finding the original reason that started this chain reaction doesn’t tell us how to keep the process from continuing. Recognizing old experiences and patterns of thought that may have led the behavior is essential in preventing the same problem from occurring again in the future. But for any change to happen now, the focus needs to be on the present, not the past.

I was discussing this with someone recently and while I was searching for an analogy to help me explain it, the image of the highway pileup came to me. I asked her what she thinks the first responders should do when they arrive at the scene. Should they start by investigating the cause while cars are crashing around them? Should they find the first guy who was going too fast or the one following too closely behind? Of course not. Those people may be long gone and are probably even oblivious to the mayhem they caused. The first thing to do is to try to prevent the very next crash from occurring and get everyone out of harm’s way.

After the responders are able to safely stop the traffic upstream and after attending to the injured and clearing the wreckage, it would make sense to go back and investigate the causes and take preventive measures to keep this from happening again. Some circumstances can’t be avoided, like the weather, but other causes can be addressed in order to minimize the likelihood and consequences of similar highway disasters occurring in the future.

The same applies to unwanted behavior. The first priority is to find ways to stop the behavior and prevent further damage. That means identifying and challenging the thoughts, beliefs and distortions that lead to the emotional reactions that the behavior is meant to cope with. It’s like The House that Jack Built. After that, you’ll have the time and perspective to do a useful postmortem so you can identify the sources of the problem and do what you can to make sure it doesn’t recur.

The video may be harrowing to watch, but if you’re struggling to overcome emotional eating or any unwanted behavior and you’re spending time focusing on the past or looking for others to blame for it, think about the image of those cars racing headlong toward the disaster, spinning out of control, and crashing into each other like bumper cars from hell. Then think about what you would do as a first responder.

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There is a concept in psychology and behavioral economics known as the scarcity heuristic. It simply means that when there is something that we want but are afraid we can’t have it, we want it even more. But scarcity affects more than how much we want something; it also affects how we behave when we find it. And that has important implications for our patterns of consumption, both economic and gastronomic.

It’s now the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s a time when retailers try to create the impression that you have a unique but brief opportunity to buy their products on sale. But you have to do it now, because soon they’ll be gone and you won’t have this chance again.

The reality, of course, is that manufacturers and retailers know well in advance how many units of each product need to be produced and there will be no shortage. But by making you believe that demand is greater than supply, they create a sense of desperation to buy now because if you wait, you’ll lose out. This may be great for the economy, but as a psychologist I’m more interested in how this might affect us in other ways that may be less benign; like how we think about food and why we overeat.

Biologists who study foraging behavior have found that when animals search for food as a group they find it faster than those that forage alone. There was one downside to doing it this way, though: once they found a patch of food, each individual in the group had to compete with the others so they don’t get left out and go hungry. This created a competitive scramble that probably looked a lot like the 6am scrum at the JCPenney door buster sale. It seems we’re just hardwired to take advantage of holiday sales because as foragers it was a strategy for survival.

I think this can help us understand other behaviors as well, especially something like emotional eating, which is my area of specialty as a psychologist. Even though in most of the world today there’s no actual food scarcity, we still feel desperate when we believe that we won’t get our fair share. Have you ever walked into the break room at work and found that someone brought in a plate of cookies? Even if you’re not really in the mood for a cookie just then, you wonder if there’ll be anything left later when you might want one. So you take it while you have the chance.

A more serious version of this, however, involves chronic restrictive dieting. Regardless of how much food is available, if you’re a strict dieter, you’ll always feels like there’s a food scarcity. The knowledge that you can’t – or rather, the feeling that you shouldn’t eat what you like can make you feel constantly deprived. Yet you keep trying your best to stay on track and resist. Most of the time you’ll succeed, but there’s only one way to be perfect and countless ways not to – especially at this time of year, when the opportunities to eat seem endless.

And when you, as a dieter, do let down your guard and allow yourself the chance to have a “forbidden” food, it’s not enough to just have some. Because once you give in, the gates are open and the urge to keep eating is hard to resist, just like that hungry forager who finally finds a patch of food. He would say, “I better eat while I can, because if I wait it will be gone and who knows when I’ll have the chance again!” The dieter says, “I better eat while I can, because once I go back on my diet I’ll stay on it forever, and who knows when I’ll have the chance again!”

I tell my patients that the only question to ask yourself when you’re making a decision to eat is simply, Do I want this? If you’re on a diet you can’t answer that question honestly, because you’re always supposed to say no. But if you allow yourself to eat what you like, then an honest answer to the question, Do I want this? will let you to enjoy eating without overindulging. Because if the answer is yes, you eat; if the answer is no, you move on. There will always be another chance when you really do want it.

You may enjoy the experience of foraging for toys among a herd of bargain hunters. But no one who struggles with emotional eating enjoys the guilt and shame that accompanies every encounter with food. The conflict that occurs when the diet mentality meets an eating opportunity can be avoided when all foods are good, and permitted, and back on the menu. Then an enjoyable meal without anxiety will no longer be a scarce resource.

Recently, I was waiting in a long security line at the airport when a woman came from somewhere in the back and asked those of us near the front if we would allow her to go through. She explained that she was there to meet a child traveling alone and his plane had arrived early. She had to go through security to meet him at the gate, but was concerned that the child was waiting there, alone and afraid. Everyone agreed and not only was no one bothered by the fact that they had to wait a little longer, but in fact, there seemed to be a sort of conviviality among us, as if we were congratulating ourselves for our generosity.

After she left, I thought about what might have happened if someone had done the same thing without asking permission. Let’s say the person was so concerned about the child’s well-being, they didn’t have the presence of mind to worry about the people waiting and just ran up to the front of the line. I think we would have been outraged by this violation of queue etiquette even though the actual impact on our wait would have been exactly the same. It seems that the difference was just our perception of fairness.

I recalled the time a few years earlier when I was waiting in the passport office with about a dozen other people and a very well-dressed man approached the clerk and after exchanging a few words with him, the man’s voice got louder until, red-faced with anger, he shouted, “Do you know who I am?” The clerk apparently didn’t know or didn’t care, because without any change in his demeanor, he calmly but firmly told the man to “sit down and wait like everyone else.” Ouch. That was probably the worst insult he could have thrown at him. The man was still fuming but realized he had no recourse and turned to sit down with the rest of us. I felt we were all suppressing the urge to gloat.

This made me think about the things that we’re willing to do even though we wouldn’t choose to, like waiting in line for goods and services or obeying the rules of the road, yet we willingly accept these limitations on our freedom as the cost of living in a civilized society. Waiting for a red light, for example, allows us to drive safely and efficiently when we’re not stopped at an intersection. Even when the light is green, we’re willing to pull over to the side to allow an emergency vehicle to pass.

We do these things for the social good because we expect they’ll produce a long-term benefit for everyone, including us. But we always keep an eye on fairness. The universal rule of first-come first-served prevents chaos but crucially, it also promotes fairness. Even if someone else gets in line just a few seconds before me and as a result, I have to wait several minutes more for service, I accept it because the rules of the system are fair.

That’s why when we feel we’re doing our part to be patient and accept the cost, we expect that we’ll be able to see the benefit of that small sacrifice. Likewise, we feel outraged when we see that other people are not following the rules, and we resent the fact that they’re getting those same benefits without paying for them. Sometimes, it can even make us feel like breaking the rules ourselves.

I think there is more than just a metaphorical connection between this kind of social behavior and emotional eating.

When you diet, you feel you’re doing what’s necessary to achieve your goal by sticking to the rules and denying yourself your just deserts. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) This requires patience in the same way that people wait in line to get some service. It also requires the assumption that the system is fair. After a few weeks of carefully following a diet and exercise plan, you’re naturally eager to step on the scale and see the fruits of your efforts. If the results are anything less than you had expected, you feel cheated.

Similarly, when you see someone who appears to be at a healthy weight indulging in an ice cream sundae, it’s like seeing someone shamelessly cut to the front of the line. You feel like yelling, “Hey, pal, we’re all suffering here!” This breach of basic fairness makes you wonder, “why do I have to be the chump who sticks to the rules?” It’s like watching that jerk in the passport office, but instead of being told to sit down, he would get exactly the preferential treatment he demanded. I don’t think the rest of us would have put up with that.

The experience that makes you feel that way doesn’t even have to do with eating. It could be triggered by any personal or work situation where you trust the fairness of the system and act responsibly with the necessary sacrifice. But instead of getting the expected reward, you get the sense that the system’s rigged against you and you feel like a sucker. If you’re sufficiently outraged, you just might rebel. For some people, it might take the form of road rage when they’re cut off by another driver. For someone who feels put upon at work, it could be an impertinent comment to their boss. For a dieter in any of those situations, it might be a binge.

When you find yourself in a similar situation, think about the lady at the airport in the alternate scenario. Instead of being angry at her for not asking permission to skip the wait, imagine that she was more concerned about the frightened little boy waiting at the gate than the impatient adults standing on line. You could see it as unfair, or you can give the benefit of the doubt to the person, the system, or your body that’s responding in whatever way it needs in response to your change in diet and exercise. And save your outrage for the jerk at the passport office.

Too Much Information

March 20, 2013

When we rely on the collective wisdom of diet “experts” we question the kind of sensible decision-making process that has guided human food consumption forever. Our common sense ideas about eating have been replaced with the notion that in order to eat in a healthy way, we must count calories, weigh servings, and banish entire food groups, whether it’s sugar, fat, or carbohydrates.

There are three problems with this. First, by relying on a belief that scientific precision is required to do something as basic to human nature as eating we forget how to eat intuitively. When was the last time you read a news story on the latest scientific study linking something to obesity, and said “Wow! I never would have thought those two things might be related!” You already know much more than you think.

Another problem is that having so much information available gives us the mistaken impression that we can now precisely control how our body will respond. When the emphasis on achieving an ideal body shape is so prevalent in our culture, this illusion of control can be very seductive. We try to manually override our automatic metabolic responses with diet books, meal replacement programs, and scales.

Unfortunately, your body doesn’t understand the concept of voluntary deprivation. From its point of view, why in the world would you not want to eat if you’re not fully satisfied and food is available? The only reasonable explanation is that it’s not available, and there must be a food shortage that calls for it to conserve calories. Despite your best attempts to control your weight, your body will continue to function under the assumption that you know no more about nutrition than your ancient ancestors did, and will make whatever adjustments to how you process what you eat as it deems necessary. That means that when you try to ignore the biological imperative to maintain a biologically desirable weight, your body will try to compensate for that deviation.

Finally, all this apparent precision (in spite of all of the conflicting science) gives the impression that there is only one right way to eat. This makes it very easy to feel you’re doing something “wrong” on a regular basis. It encourages a type of eating behavior (some would call it an eating disorder) called orthorexia. As opposed to anorexia, which is the absence (an-) of appetite or desire to eat (orexia), orthorexia refers to hypercorrect eating with an implication of rigidity. Think of “ortho” as in orthopedics, orthodontics, or rigid orthodoxy. When one takes a hard line approach to dieting, a recurrent sense of failure can soon convince you that you are trying to accomplish the impossible. Then it becomes too easy to feel hopeless, to say “what’s the use?” and just give up making any effort at all.

So if regulating appetite and metabolism is our body’s job, then what’s our job? Aside from nutrition, our bodies regulate other things, like temperature. It makes no more sense for a person to try to override the body’s mechanism for automatically regulating nutrition than it does to take over for the way it regulates your temperature. If you’re chilly you put on a sweater. If it gets warmer, you take it off. You don’t try to count the layers of fabric that would be needed to increase your core body temperature by two degrees or try to train yourself to tolerate the cold by refusing to wear more than a sweater in freezing weather. Yet when people diet, they do both of those things to try to manually override their body’s preset default program. Our only real responsibility is to use our common sense and respond to the messages that our body is sending us.

We don’t necessarily have to wait to get the message before acting, like waiting to eat until we’re very hungry, any more than we have to wait for the collection agency to go after us before paying a bill. Instead, anticipate hunger. At this point in your life it should come as no surprise that if you work through lunch without eating, pretty soon you’ll get hungry and you’ll have to stop working. So anticipate that and pack a lunch before going to the office or take a break to eat. But don’t try to do your body’s job.

Eating properly should take no more information about nutrition than putting on a sweater requires the study of thermoregulation. Our bodies are designed to automatically regulate how we use the nutrition that we take in; it uses what it needs and discards the rest. Through the hunger signal, it induces us to give it what it needs when it needs it. If we don’t overthink it, we could stop trying to tell our body what it should be doing and listen to what it’s trying to tell us and let it do its own thing.

How does emotional eating fit in to this? If dieting is a conscious, deliberate attempt to replace the body’s natural way to regulate what you need, binge eating may be, in part, the body’s way to fight back. As Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, writing on the connection between dieting and binge eating, put it,

Successful dieting demands that physiological controls, which by themselves are conducive to a “desirable” weight level, be replaced with cognitive controls designed specifically to achieve a lower weight in line with the dieter’s personal aspirations.[1]

Binge eating, according to them, may be the body’s response to dieting in its ongoing attempt to maintain regulation. But this time, it’s trying to compensate for the person’s behavior that’s working against the body’s efforts. Here’s Polivy and Herman again:

Binge eating may represent the body’s attempt to restore weight to a more biologically appropriate level. Needless to say, this biologically more appropriate level may not correspond to the cultural or personal aspirations of the dieter.

In other words, they’re suggesting a homeostatic model for binge eating that’s based on biological regulation. I agree with that, and I’m taking it one step further to add a psychological component to that argument. Just as we have a built-in requirement to balance our nutritional needs, we need to do the same for our emotional needs; specifically, as I have been saying all along, the balance between autonomy and responsibility.


[1] Polivy, J. & Herman, C.P. (1985) Dieting and Binging: A Causal Analysis. American Psychologist, 193-201.

Are children free? On the one hand they have to do what they’re told. They can’t just skip school if they don’t want to go. They have to eat what they’re given, go to sleep at their bedtime, and do their homework. That may seem very restrictive. On the other hand they’re free to be…well, kids.

I can recall vividly standing at the bus stop on the way to school when I was around ten and watching as adults would get in and out of their cars to do things they were free to do, as they wished. I remember how envious I was of the freedom they had to make their own choices and lead their own lives.

Now as an adult, I imagine that the adults I was watching back then were probably looking at me waiting for the bus and thinking how nice it must be to be a kid with no responsibilities. After all, kids don’t have to worry about taking care of themselves, support a family, or deal with responsibilities at work. All of that is done for them, and all they have to worry about is doing their homework, where they’ll go for their next playdate or when their next little league game will be.

The reality is that both adults and children have their own set of trade-offs between self-directed options and externally dictated obligations. The difference is that the freedom adults have is the freedom to make choices. That freedom carries with it certain inherent responsibilities. You have to use your accumulated wisdom and good judgment that, as an adult, you’re now expected to have.

When you have to use that wisdom and experience, you’re expected to make the right choice, and you’re responsible for the consequences if that choice doesn’t turn out well. Sometimes it might feel like that’s the kind of independence you might prefer to live without.

The freedom that children have is freedom from choice. They don’t have to bear the burden that you have as an adult of making the right choices or dealing with the fallout if those choices don’t work out as you expected. I believe that this type of freedom from choice is the real allure of rigid diets.

When a new diet book comes out and the author says, “Just follow exactly what I tell you and you’ll lose a lot of weight in a very short time,” it’s very understandable to think, “Wow, no more deciding what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat it…just follow directions?! Where do I sign up?” That’s the freedom of the child: “just tell me what to do and I’m free from having to choose!”

But that’s not autonomy. We’re programmed with the need to make our own choices even when that feels burdensome. If we try to avoid that burden and agree to give up some of our freedom, we will soon feel a need to reclaim it. That’s how diets fail.

The fact that a choice we make doesn’t work out as we hoped doesn’t mean it was the wrong choice. It just means that given the fact that we can’t foretell the future, we must make decisions with incomplete information. As long as we use all the information that we can reasonably gather, and make as informed a decision as we possibly can, the choice is a correct one even if it doesn’t work out.

It’s just like playing poker – betting on a good hand is still a good decision even if it turns out that someone else has a better hand. As long as you have used all the information available to you, right down to your opponent’s “tells” to see if he’s bluffing, you may lose some money but you’ve made a good bet.

To lose weight without losing your autonomy, you have to accept responsibility for making choices about eating and activity. Even using good judgment and the information available to you, there are factors operating that you aren’t aware of, like how your body will respond to those choices or the possible emotional rebound of self-denial. The outcome of those choices won’t always be perfect.

One of the consequences of having that freedom and accepting choices that are less than optimal is that the weight will come off more gradually. You won’t experience the child’s need for instant gratification because that number won’t go down every time you step on the scale. That’s the burden of being an adult.

I recently went to a lecture by a scientist at Northwestern named Malcolm MacIver about how our ability to look ahead – literally to see more than what’s right in front of our noses – affects how our consciousness has evolved. (Here’s a TEDx talk that he gave on this topic.)

There are predatory fish that hunt for prey in murky waters and can only see inches in front of them. They use an electrical sensory system in their tails that indicates when they have just passed some food. This limits their ability to plan ahead and they have to actually back up to catch their prey. Land mammals who can see thousands of yards around them can imagine their plan of attack well ahead of time and can foresee alternate behavioral options to carry it out most effectively. This visual capacity paved the way for the evolution of consciousness by enabling us to use foresight and plan ahead.

Although we humans have the capacity for foresight, for complex reasons that have to do with our other abilities and adaptive needs, such as our capacity for denial, our need for autonomy and our preference for instant gratification, we often tend to see only the short term consequences of our behavior. As we swim around in the present like fish in murky water, we set a limit on our capacity to recognize how our current behavior affects our lives in the future.

There are ways to overcome this blind spot. In his talk, Dr. MacIver gave an example of a program in a public housing project that motivates residents to save energy. When their energy consumption goes up, the thermostat displays a picture of an adult polar bear alone on an ice flow. When they are using energy more efficiently it shows the bear with an increasing number of adult and baby polar bears standing on thicker ice, with seals swimming around them. That got me to think about ways that such an approach could help us to think about our eating behavior and to better appreciate how it will impact our lives in the future.

One thought I had is to change how we use the scale. When you step on a scale you see your current weight. However, it is only a reflection of your past behavior – what you’ve eaten, and how active or sedentary you’ve been. Since you’re trying to change that behavior, such information only emphasizes and draws attention to the problem that you’re trying to fix. It’s a very negative kind of motivation and says nothing about how your behavior change will benefit you. Instead, it keeps you focused tightly on the past and immediate present, which you already know you’re not happy with. How can you use the scale to motivate change in your present behavior and improve your future self?

Let’s say you’re sedentary and you know that your eating habits are not very healthy, and as a result your current weight is 225 pounds. You would like to lose a substantial amount of that extra weight but you don’t know what you can realistically expect to weigh if you change some behaviors, and you’re not sure that it’s worth it to you to have to make those sacrifices.

What if you were able to step on a new type of scale, and by entering a few new healthier behaviors that you have decided to take on, this new scale would show you how much you will weigh in three months, six months, a year or beyond – if you maintain these behavioral changes. So, for example, if you switched from drinking regular soft drinks to zero-calorie beverages, reduced your portion sizes of starchy foods in half, and walked for 30 minutes a day you would be able to step on the scale and instead of seeing “225,” you would see “215 in three months,” “200 in six months,” and “180 in one year.” It could also display your Body Mass Index (BMI) or what your corresponding dress or shirt size would be at those future points.

Wouldn’t that be more motivating than a lecture from your doctor?

There are many reasons that people use food as a way of coping with stress. In my work with emotional eaters, however, I have found that there are four common types of coping styles that are most prevalent and seem to uniquely predispose people to emotional eating:

  • The Suppressor
  • The Impostor
  • The Perfectionist
  • The Pleaser

Suppressors are people who tend to deal with stress internally, without letting on that they’re feeling overwhelmed, need help, or need to talk about their feelings. Often, they’re not even consciously aware of the fact that they’re feeling this way, but may readily acknowledge it when asked by someone who recognizes the amount of stress they must be dealing with. They may not have the tools to express themselves emotionally or may not feel comfortable doing so. Typically, they are concerned about the appearance of weakness in asking for help.

Impostors are those who believe they’re just pretending to be competent at what they do (even though they really are) and feel like they have to maintain this supposed charade. It’s a way of coping that’s commonly referred to as the Impostor Syndrome, and it often leads to great anxiety about the possibility of their secret being found out. They consequently have a tendency to be overly vigilant in carrying out their tasks and are very cautious about avoiding mistakes. Instead of feeling satisfaction after successful completion of a task, the person usually just feels relieved.

Like Impostors, Perfectionists are also extremely careful about avoiding mistakes in whatever they do, but they’re motivated more by a fear of being flawed rather than the humiliation of being exposed like the Impostor. They are driven to be perfect in what they do, mainly because they embrace a black and white view of success and failure. They tend to see any result that is less than perfect as a failed effort.

Pleasers represent, I believe, the most common coping style among emotional eaters. They are people who consistently put the needs of others ahead of their own. They may feel obligated to take on a task for someone else even if that means that they must sacrifice what they want to do for themselves in order to accomplish it. This behavior is a combination of the desire to avoid conflict or rejection if they assert themselves, together with a tendency to undervalue their own needs.

One thing all of these coping styles share in common is the experience of a constant state of tension just beneath the surface of their outward behavior. The tension comes from restraining their emotional response due to concern about the consequences of expressing it. You might think of it as similar to a man holding in his stomach on the beach to hide his pot belly. At some point, he has to let go.

For people who struggle with emotional eating, there is a similar need to let go, but it’s done with eating. They see food as something that is often forbidden because of their tendency to overeat, or because of attitudes toward tempting but forbidden junk food; usually it’s both. In this way, food represents something that needs to be carefully controlled, just like their emotional state. They will almost always try to do this, but when they need to let go of the emotional tension that has built up, eating becomes a way of acting out that needed release.

How can one modify the effect a dysfunctional coping style has on eating, whether it’s one of the four I described or something similar? Someone who relies on any of these styles would need to make two important changes in their way of thinking. The first is to learn how to deal more constructively with the emotions that are held back. This may involve questioning and challenging long-held assumptions about the negative consequences of expressing feelings directly. Many of these assumptions are automatic beliefs that are simply untrue in reality, but have been accepted for so long, they feel very real.

The second necessary change is to challenge commonly accepted attitudes toward food. This could involve questioning the widely held belief that one must abstain from all purely indulgent foods, such as highly caloric desserts, if one is to lose weight. Instead, adopt an attitude of moderating and cutting down on their consumption and challenge the all-or-nothing way of thinking that is so common among chronic dieters. These two changes in how one thinks about expressing emotions and attitudes toward food can help tremendously when trying to take the “emotion” out of emotional eating.