New diets often begin in one of two ways.
One way is what we’ll call the “New Year’s Resolution Diet.” Perhaps an individual had been aware of their goal to lose weight for a long time, but had never found the right time to make that first step. They then decide that starting the first day of the year – or any special, memorable day – they’ll turn things around and implement a new diet.
Let’s call the other way the “Documentary Diet.” Maybe an individual saw one of the many inspiring documentaries about promising new diets, or they read a book about a miracle weight loss solution, or were otherwise inspired by some discrete event. Using this as motivation, they respond to what they perceive to be a clarion call for a dietary overhaul, and begin immediately implementing new eating habits.
For many of us, we’re intimately familiar with New Year’s Resolution Diets and Documentary Diets. Perhaps we’ve tried one or the other, or even both at once! If not, at the very least a family member or friend has considered beginning a diet using one of these two strategies.
However, there’s a problem hidden inside both of these dieting strategies.
Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making resolutions to eat healthier or being inspired to change your diet. And anything at all that provides motivation to eat healthy is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
Nonetheless, the problem with New Year’s Resolution Diets and Documentary Diets is that they generally don’t last. And new research has demonstrated one possible reason why.
Approach & Avoidance in Dieting
New research may have identified one reason why diets generally don’t last. In 2016, Dr. Meredith David, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University, published a study in the journal Psychology & Marketing entitled “Saying ‘No’ to Cake or ‘Yes’ to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals.”
The dominant idea expressed in the title of the research study is the difference between approach strategies and avoidance strategies. Approach strategies indicate the addition of some new positive health behavior, such as to eat more kale. Avoidance strategies indicate the subtraction of some existing negative health behavior, such as to eat less cake.
Any successful diet will undoubtedly (and unavoidably) contain elements of both strategies. To continue with the simple example given in the title of the article, if an individual were to eat more kale during a meal, they would (hopefully!) have less appetite for cake after the meal. Thus the approach strategy would supplement the avoidance strategy. The opposite relationship would also be possible, where keeping oneself from certain foods produces the appetite that leads one towards a better food, etc.
High and Low Self Control
The purpose of the research was to examine how individuals with high and low self-control differed on their implementation of these approach and avoidance behaviors in setting and attaining health goals.
Collecting data from a total of 542 research participants over a total of three studies, Dr. Meredith and her colleagues demonstrated several interesting relationships between self-control and dieting strategy.
It turned out that the individuals who measured higher in self-control were actually less likely to utilize avoidance strategies when implementing a new diet. The participants who scored more highly on self-control wrote down fewer dieting rules that involved food restrictions, and when they did incorporate food restrictions, the restricted foods were always foods that could reasonably be avoided.
By contrast, individuals scoring low in self-control were more likely to report unreasonable avoidance rules, intending to keep themselves from their favorite foods as part of their dietary plans. They were also more likely to use approach strategies to incorporate foods that they didn’t like, such as Brussels sprouts, whereas individuals high in self-control tried to incorporate healthy foods they enjoyed, such as strawberries.
In summary, the research study supported the idea that individuals high in self-control tried to avoid foods they could feasibly avoid, and to add into their diet only those new healthy foods that they enjoyed. Meanwhile, low self-control individuals were more likely to try and avoid their favorite foods while adding on healthy foods they did not like.
Small Practical Goals
Think back to the two dieting strategies mentioned above: the “New Year’s Resolution Diet” and the “Documentary Diet.” What do they both have in common?
Both diets incorporate immediate, broad, sweeping change. In the case of the New Year’s Resolution Diet, the change is planned in advance, ready to be implemented on the first day of the year or another, comparably special date. For the Documentary Diet, the diet has to begin today! With so much immediate motivation to change eating habits, there’s no time to lose.
However, in both models, there is a very sharp demarcation between the individual’s dietary and health habits before the change, and the new habits that happened after the change.
This requires an immense amount of self-control, as habits are not easily broken. But as the research above illustrated, strong and effective self-control is less about having the brute will power to abide by arduous rules, and more about having the sensitivity and self-awareness to set yourself realistic goals.
Consider the following quote from The Art of War: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
To launch headlong a New Year’s Resolution Diet or a Documentary Diet with big plans and overly ambitious goals is to put yourself right on the battle line, without knowing for sure whether you’ll have the strength to ultimately win the war against those tantalizing snacks and cravings. Too often these leads to giving up the diet prematurely.
On the other hand, to implement manageable, attainable goals is to win the war first, and then march off to the kitchen to implement those practices that you already believe. These are the often kinds of diets that stick. While they may not be flashy or sensational, they can lead to steady, incremental progress.
In conclusion, the next time you begin a diet, even if it is for a New Year’s resolution or in response to an inspiring documentary, utilize the research above on the psychology of dietary motivation to set yourself up for success.
After all, once you settle into a consistent set of healthful dietary practices that works for your situation, you’ll no longer need to start any new diets!
-Oakville Wellness Team
David, M. E., & Haws, K. L. (2016). Saying “No” to Cake or “Yes” to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals. Psychology & Marketing, 33(8), 588-594.
It has recently been discovered that creative thinking is associated with lying. Creativity is one of the most sought after qualities in today’s marketplace. It is associated with increased flexibility, problem solving, coping with day-to-day problems and changes. Our society depends on inventive thinking to move us forward. Most have never considered that creative thinking could have a downside.
Two American researchers from Harvard and Duke recently invented a number of creative experiments to test how creativity influences cheating, lying, and generally unethical behaviour.
Stealing at Work
To start, they went to a business and gave a short survey asking the staff about how much they stole (e.g., stealing office supplies, falsifying expense reports, etc.). They asked just under 100 employees in 17 different departments and they found that the people in the jobs that required more creativity stole more than those in other positions.
In this experiment they had people sit at a computer and select which side of the screen had more red dots. Sometimes it was clear that one side had more dots and other times it was harder to tell. They paid the participants for each response. However, they paid them more when they said the right side had more dots, being right or wrong didn’t matter.
Well, they found that people with a more creative personality selected the right side more often, especially when it was hard to tell which side had more dots. This meant that the creative people got paid more by the experimenter. They also found that more intelligence didn’t impact lying, only creativity was associated with biased responding.
Getting the Creative Juices Flowing
The third experiment was about getting people into a creative mindset and then seeing if it effected their behaviour. For this experiment they first had people do word problems. For half the subjects the words were picked at random, but the other half had word problems stuffed with creative words (e.g., innovation, novel, original, inventiveness, etc.).
The first thing they did was have the two groups solve a problem that requires a lot of creativity. The participants were given a candle, box of tacks, matches, and a cardboard wall. They had to attach the candle to the wall and light it without dripping wax. This is a difficult problem, but they found that the people who saw the creative words were much better at solving it. Getting their creative juices going had worked. By the way, the solution is to empty the tack box and then pin the box to the cardboard wall as a candle holder.
Right after trying to solve this problem, they gave the participants the red dot on the computer problem used in the last experiment. They found that the people in the creative mindset were more biased in their responding and made more money.
In their fourth and fifth experiment they wanted to see if creative people lied more because their creativity gave them greater skill in justifying their behaviour. To test this they had subjects roll dice for money. The higher the number they rolled the more money they got. However, they rolled the dice themselves and then wrote the number on a slip to give the experimenter, which gave them an opportunity to cheat.
In the first condition, the participants rolled the dice once and then reported the number. In the second condition, the participants were asked to roll the dice once (their score), and then roll it a few more times to make sure the dice were legitimate. Rolling the dice multiple times gave the participants more room to justify a lying. They might say to themselves, “That first roll doesn’t count, I’ll take the number from the second roll.”
They found that creative people lied more when they just rolled the dice once. When the participants rolled the dice multiple times everyone lied more. So it seems that everyone justifies lying when there is more room for that justification (multiple rolls of the dice), but creative people lie in situations that don’t give as much room for justification (one roll of the dice).
Everyone lies. However, we also want to feel good about ourselves so we engage in mental gymnastics to justify our lying in some way. We might say that we lied because we didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or because it is the cultural norm, or because your boss didn’t give you a raise you deserve that extra $50 on the expense report. Some of us seem to be better at these gymnastics than others. Creative people may be able to use their creativity to justify lying, cheating, or stealing in situations that others would consider obviously unethical. Every power seems to come with temptation, creativity seems to be no different. I guess the question is: Are you creative? – no lying.
Oakville Wellness Team
Gino, F., & Ariely, D. (2012). The dark side of creativity: Original thinkers can be more dishonest. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 445-459.