If you’re like every other human, and chances are that’s the case, stress can enter your life in all forms, from every possible source, and in every possible way. Therefore, saying that emotional eating is due to stress is like saying that an illness is due to being sick. It’s circular and meaningless. Unless you can identify a specific cause that can be linked to the effect you will be unable to eliminate the symptom.

However, with all the possible suspects as the source of the stress behind this behavior it can be very difficult to identify the ones that are actually causing it. Fortunately, it should be clear by now that emotional eating is a specific type of response to a specific type of stress. It is a defiant act of self-liberation from the domination of external control, so the search for a cause can therefore be more focused. The first question to ask, then, is not “Why am I stressed out,” but “In what way am I feeling controlled?

As I described in the previous section, the source of the problem is often related to control around eating, such as explicit or implicit pressure to lose weight. But it can also come from any other situation in which you feel you bear the full responsibility for getting something done, but your freedom or authority to do it your way is being limited by other people or circumstances. (I want to emphasize that you feel that’s the case; it doesn’t mean that it is! This is an important point for finding alternative solutions, which I’ll address in the next step.)

A simple and fairly common example is when someone asks you for a favor. You may have no time, energy, or desire to say yes, but there’s a part of you that feels unable to say no. Perhaps you’re concerned that this person will be angry with you or will see you as a bad or uncaring person. Maybe being seen as the kind of person who is always available to help is more important to you than commitments that you’ve made to yourself to get certain things done. So even if this means that the items on your own to do list get downgraded in priority, you have to make that sacrifice to maintain your image.

All of this is very nice, but not so deep down, you may feel resentful. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you may be grumbling to yourself about how inconsiderate this friend is for “forcing” you to give up what you need to do, and instead do something that is inconvenient and time-consuming. How rude!

Of course, none of this is true. The friend may have been very accepting if you explained that you’re unable to comply with the request, even without providing a good excuse. But there’s some part of you that has internalized the idea that complying with every request is the right way to behave. You may even be able to recall some such explicit message, spoken in a voice that sounds suspiciously like one of your parents.

Whatever the reason, you feel forced, compelled and controlled. If this is an ongoing occurrence, you will likely feel that your sense of independence, what psychologists refer to as self-determination, is out of balance. To correct that, you unconsciously feel the need to engage in some behavior that makes it right again by reassuring yourself that you’re still in charge. Any situation in which you find yourself feeling that your sense of independence is impinged upon may be a likely candidate for causing a counter-reaction type of behavior like binge eating.

This behavior feels like a satisfying correction to the imbalance caused by the impaired sense of autonomy because you’re able to break the rules without hurting anyone else. “After all,” you tell yourself, “I’m the one who made the rule, so I’m the one who can break it.” Yes, you have the freedom of the proverbial fox that’s guarding the hen house. On the other hand, of course, “not hurting anybody else” implies that you are hurting yourself with this behavior. So why isn’t that enough to prevent it?

If the object of the behavior is to feel free, then that would include feeling free of having to worry about the predictable outcome. “I may feel bad later,” you tell yourself, “but I don’t care!” That’s the point of the freedom – you have the freedom to ignore consequences.

Recognizing the source of the perceived control is the key to overcoming that counter-behavior, because this pattern only “works” if you’re not fully cognizant of why you’re doing it. If, however, you use the urge to binge as a signal to think about how you might be feeling controlled, you defeat the supposed purpose of acting in opposition to that control, which is to feel independent. As Edward Deci puts it in his book, Why We Do What We Do, “When people are either complying with or defying controls, they are not being autonomous, and they can know that.”

Being aware of your options and choosing to act out of preference, not out of defiance, is the key to true independence.

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On May 25th (Friday of Memorial Day weekend) I’m scheduled to give a presentation about the behavioral self-regulation model I’ve been discussing in this blog as an alternative to the ego-depletion model. It will be at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science that will be meeting this year in Chicago. For those of you who can be there, I look forward to discussing it personally with you. For the vast remainder, I’ll give you a preview here. The presentation is actually a poster session, which means I’ll be standing next to a display and talking about it with anyone who is interested, but this is how I would probably pitch it if I was presenting a paper rather than a more informal poster:

Over the past century, the concept of homeostasis, which refers to how a system regulates itself to maintain a stable internal condition, has been in and out of favor as the basis for a theory of motivation. The purpose of this presentation is to propose a theoretical model that explains the mechanism for problems of behavioral regulation such as emotional eating, gambling, shopping, and other impulse control disorders. These behaviors are generally considered problems of self-control failure.

The model I am proposing is based on the idea that homeostasis is a primary controlling force in motivation and behavioral regulation. It suggests that self-control “failure” is not a breakdown of control due to a depletion of willpower, but is rather a proactive, strategic attempt to regain a feeling of autonomous control. This model is derived from my clinical experience in treating patients with emotional eating, and it is empirically supported by research that has come primarily from the laboratory of Roy Baumeister at Florida State University. It differs significantly, however, from the interpretation that has been put forward by Baumeister and colleagues, and is now widely accepted as the model that explains self-control. It is variously referred to as the depletion model, strength model, or resource model of self-control.

Homeostasis is a term coined in 1929 by the American physiologist Walter Cannon to describe the feedback mechanism that biological systems employ to maintain a stable and balanced internal environment. This mechanism, which was first described by the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard, is used in all biological systems  to regulate physiological processes such as temperature and blood pressure.

Currently, homeostasis is out of favor as an explanation for human motivation and has been for the past several decades. Its current status may date back to 1986, when the prominent social psychologist Bernard Weiner, in his book, An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion, proposed a set of rules which he felt any theory of motivation must follow. His very first principle was that “a theory of motivation must be based on a concept other than homeostasis.” His reasoning was that “humans often strive to induce states of disequilibrium” such as horror movies or roller coasters. In other words, homeostasis requires the maintenance of balance and such behavior would disrupt that balance. Therefore, the fact that people often seek out such experiences is inconsistent with a theory of motivation that is based on homeostasis.

In stating this, Weiner makes the assumption that when people engage in such emotionally stimulating activity, they are starting out in a state of emotional neutrality and comfort. I believe this assumption is unwarranted. While it is true that horror movies and roller coasters would certainly disrupt a person’s otherwise peaceful and neutral internal emotional environment, there is no reason to assume that this was their internal condition before engaging in these activities. The excitement these experiences generate may be a way of compensating for a feeling of boredom or a desire to escape from routine. By temporarily going to the opposite extreme, one may actually be restoring balance rather than upsetting it.

In their Self-Determination Theory of motivation, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan state that a primary motivational force is the basic psychological need for internal or autonomous control. When we perceive that there is too much external control over our behavior, our motivation to perform declines. If we accept that this is a basic psychological need, then we would be motivated to make up for it when it feels depleted, just as we do for any basic need. That would be done by temporarily overcompensating with an excessive degree of internal control.

How does this apply to understanding and improving self-control? According to the depletion model, self-control or willpower is like a muscle that has a limited capacity and gets depleted with use. This is supported by ample research evidence showing that each time people have to exercise self-restraint, their ability to do so gets worse. As the self-restraint “muscle” tires, we are more likely to lose self-control in our behavior.

However, if we apply our understanding of homeostasis to this process, what appears to be a depletion of strength may actually be a depletion of autonomy and control. The more you have to restrain an impulse to act, the less you feel a sense of independent control. To compensate for that there is an increased motivation to “act out” (as we clinicians like to say). There is a proactive need to give up and surrender to the impulse – not out of weakness, but out of a drive to regain autonomous control.

Have you ever found that it’s easier to diet when you’re doing it for yourself rather than to please someone else? If you have, research backs that up; people who make the effort to lose weight for their own reasons are more successful at it than those who are doing it for external reasons.

At least that’s what people in a six-month weight loss program said when they were asked about their reasons for dieting. The participants who reported more internal motivation to lose weight attended the program more regularly, lost more weight during the program, and maintained the weight loss better than those whose motivation was more external.

Mark Muraven was not involved in that study, but he is one of the researchers who helped develop the depletion model of self-control. In fact, as a graduate student working on his master’s thesis, he designed and carried out the original study that demonstrated how self-restraint has a negative impact on later attempts to control behavior, and concluded that it’s an indication that self-control or willpower  is a limited resource that gets depleted with use. Muraven is now an associate professor at the University of Albany and wanted to examine the effects of internal versus external motivation on self-control.  About five years ago he published an interesting paper that describes a study he carried out to explore this question.

He told participants (82 undergraduates) that the purpose of the study was to see the effect that sugar had on strength. It actually had nothing to do with that, but he needed the subjects to be blind to the real purpose of the study. (He straightened them out afterwards in a standard debriefing.) First, they were asked to squeeze a spring-loaded hand grip, which is a common task used to measure self-control. The more self-control they had, the longer they would squeeze the device before giving up. This was their baseline measure of how long they can hold it.

He then presented them with plates of assorted cookies and told them that he’ll be stepping out for a few minutes. Before he left, he explained that they can choose to eat the cookies or not. However, the researchers for the (mock) “sugar strength” test especially need participants who could be in the group of those who did not eat any cookies.  “The choice,” he emphasized, “is entirely yours. But we would really appreciate it if you would not eat the cookies.” When the investigator returned to the room, he administered the grip test again.

Only three of the 82 participants ate any cookies (their results were excluded), so the group was pretty compliant, but they had different motivations for not eating them. As they revealed on a questionnaire they were given afterward, some people endorsed internal reasons not to eat the cookies, like, “it’s fun to challenge myself,” which would be an internal motivation. Others didn’t eat them “because I want the experimenter to like me,” an external motive. The questionnaire was designed to measure autonomous self-control on a continuum from very internally motivated to very externally motivated.

They also measured the difference between the baseline and follow-up grip-strength endurance times for each person and compared the degree of drop-off in endurance with the degree of autonomy the subjects felt. The results? As the previous observations indicated, it confirmed that internal motivation for self-control was less “depleting” (in depletion model terms) than external motivation. The problem is, the resource-depletion theory has no explanation for why that should happen. As Muraven concluded, “this study indicates that the [depletion] model needs a significant revision, as autonomous self-control appears to deplete far less self-control strength than compelled self-control.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had this experience: You’re rushing to get out of the house on a winter morning to drive the older kids in carpool, and as you struggle to get the youngest into his snowsuit he’s screaming, “No! I want to do it myself!!”  Or you might be old enough to remember the tagline from the Anacin commercial, “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself!” Young or old, people have a need to feel that they are the source of their own actions. Why is the need to do it by and for yourself so important?

The need for autonomous control, or the self-driven motivation to act, has been explained by two psychologists at the University of Rochester, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. According to this idea,  called Self-Determination Theory, a feeling of autonomy is, along with competence and relatedness, one of the three main elements of intrinsic motivation. For a good non-technical explanation of these ideas, read Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do. In it, he relates an old Jewish fable told to him by a friend.

It seems that bigots were eager to rid their town of a Jewish man who had opened a tailor shop on Main Street, so they sent a group of rowdies to harass the tailor. Each day, the ruffians would show up to jeer. The situation was grim, but the tailor was ingenious. One day when the hoodlums arrived, he gave each of them a dime for their efforts. Delighted, they shouted their insults and moved on. The next day they returned to shout, expecting their dime. But the tailor said he could afford only a nickel and proceeded to hand a nickel to each of them. Well, they were a bit disappointed, but a nickel is after all a nickel, so they took it, did their jeering, and left. The next day, they returned once again, and the tailor said he had only a penny for them and held out his hand. Indignant, the young toughs sneered and proclaimed that they would certainly not spend their time jeering at him for a measly penny. So they didn’t. And all was well for the tailor.

As long as their motivation was their own sheer pleasure at giving this poor tailor a hard time, they would do it for free. But once they got used to doing it for a reward, their internal motivation was replaced by the external reward. When the incentive ended, the behavior stopped. (Think about the implications for corporate wellness programs that rely on incentives to get employees to lose weight and exercise!) Similarly, the surest way to doom whatever you might accomplish on a diet is to lose the weight for someone else rather than for yourself. At some point, the pay-off ends while the deprivation continues and is no longer worth it.

But what does all this say about whether self-control is the result of willpower, as the depletion-resource-strength model theorists contend? If you recall from my previous post about why people would repeat something that they know will cause them to feel worse afterward, my conclusion was that the reinforcement for that behavior was actually very powerful; it was all about freedom, autonomy, and control, as self-determination theory has been saying all along.

When Muraven says that the results of his study on autonomy and self-control indicate the need to revise the depletion model, I would agree.  It seems that when there is a sense of imbalance between having control over your own choices versus feeling forced or pressured to behave according to expectations – even self-imposed expectations – that balance must be restored. Sometimes, that may even be at the expense of having to deal with unpleasant consequences later .

When the depletion theorists describe certain behaviors, such as emotional eating, as a “breakdown” of restraint, it is not due to a passive depletion of the strength to resist; rather, it’s an active strategy to restore an imbalance in autonomy. In the next post I’ll describe in more detail this idea of balance, imbalance and restoration, and how it can be applied to improve the self-regulation of behavior.