Resisting temptation is easier for those who exaggerate threats

At an initial glance, a new study from the Journal of Consumer Research appears to have absolutely nothing to do with eating disorders. It wasn't about magazines or models or the purchase of diet products. The title of the paper had the rather bland-sounding titled of "Counteractive Construal in Consumer Goal Pursuit." That sounds as exciting as organizing my sock drawer. Rather, what caught my eye was the title of a news brief about the research titled "Resisting temptation is easier for those who exaggerate the threat."

And I thought, "Huh. That sounds a lot like what happens in eating disorders."

It sure does.

The authors of the research did four different studies, which they looked at to draw their conclusions. Two of those studies had to do with dieting and weight loss.

From a press release:

“Four experiments show that when consumers encounter temptations that conflict with their long-term goals, one self-control mechanism is to exaggerate the negativity of the temptation as a way to resist, a process we call counteractive construal,” the researchers write.

For example, in one study, female participants were asked to estimate the calories in a cookie. Half the participants were told that they have the option of receiving the cookie as a complimentary gift for participation and half were not. The results showed that consumers with a strong dieting goal construed the cookie as having more calories and being more damaging to the attainment of their long-term goal of losing weight.

{snip}

In [another] study, female participants entered a room that either had posters depicting fit models or nature scenery. “Participants who were exposed to posters depicting fit models (goal-priming stimuli) were more likely to exaggerate the calories in a tempting drink that they expected to consume later on, and consequently consumed less when offered the drink,” the authors write.


The relevance to eating disorders is obvious, even when you ignore all of the stuff about weight loss. That's not what I find the most interesting. The key words that leaped off the page at me were "resisting temptation" and "exaggerate the threat." For many people, temptation is temptation. Someone who is predisposed to an eating disorder, however, may be much more likely to view temptation as a threat. You can add me to that category. People with AN in particular are prone to asceticism, which Wikipedia defines as "a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various sorts of worldly pleasures (especially sexual activity and consumption of alcohol) often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals."

Want something even more ascetic that renouncing sex and booze? Renounce food. If these things weren't considered somehow "tempting"--read any nutrition advice about the holidays and you'll see what I mean--then they wouldn't need to be renounced. Many people with AN struggle with including pleasurable things in their lives. I'm not talking about pleasure from a night with your latest order from Good Vibes and a pair of AA batteries. I'm talking about the pleasure of relaxing in front of a fire, leaving the dishes until morning, going to a party even though you have a paper due the next day. Little things. I don't find them alluring as much as I find them anxiety-provoking, perhaps because they are so alluring to me. The thought of holding up a bank doesn't cause me anxiety because I have no desire to do so.

So there we have the part about "resisting temptation." Now we get to the part about "exaggerating the threat." The all work, no play work ethic of mine gets its oomph largely from my fears of what will happen if I play. How can I relax when there are stories that need researching and writing? How can I leave the dishes until morning when there might be a bug problem? How can I skip working on my paper, which could mean that I do horribly, fail the paper, fail the class, fail out of college, and wind up living in a cardboard box?

Like I said, "exaggerating the threat."

I'm a veteran calorie counter. When I'm wrong about the calories in something (which I occasionally am, although after 10 years, there's not a whole lot that I haven't already looked up), it's because I grossly over-estimated the number of calories in something, not an underestimate. An extra bite becomes 1000 extra calories in my mind. And when you consider that food is anxiety-provoking to people with eating disorders, there's already that tendency to exaggerate how awful, fattening, and massively portioned a food was.

Besides my food issues, I am also terrified of spiders. I've whacked off several roaches, millipedes, centipedes, and other bugs I didn't take that good of a look at. I don't like these bugs, but I can at least get rid of them with some shred of self-respect. Spiders are another matter entirely. Even a daddy long-legs seems huge to me. I see one and I scream like a girl. The other girls in my dorm always asked me to be on spider patrol because I was a "biology person." All I could think was that I use a microscope, not a fly swatter. Spiders seem massive to me- a literal interpretation of exaggerating the threat.

So when food seems far more threatening than it is tempting, it's easy to see how avoiding food would become almost instinctual.

9 comments:

Katie said...

Reading 'leaving the dishes until morning' in association with pleasure was weird, because I can see that other people might see that as a guilty pleasure, but it would be more anxiety provoking than pleasureable for me. I wouldn't be able to relax knowing they were out there! I say the same thing to people who seem to associate anorexia with willpower. I wasn't able to restrict because I had incredible self control, it was because eating more than I had planned for the day seemed as impossible as putting a tarantula in my mouth (sorry for the spider mention!). So this research makes a lot of sense to me. It's not just easy to resist temptation in that sort of situation, it's just not a tempting thought/action in the first place.

balancingontwofeet said...

Wow, this is all totally me. I've always said that the "real" things in life never scare me but what goes on in my head and that extra bite? Terrifying.

TinaBeresh said...

With compulsive overeating temporarily in remission, I had the exact opposite of this problem. I consistently underestimated the calories in foods. This was even when I was controlling my food intake.

Cathy (UK) said...

This is interesting and I'm trying to think it through...

Asceticism was a big part of my anorexia nervosa (AN), and I often felt that I didn't deserve to eat. This feeling of being undeserved was closely associated with depression and low self worth. Yet, I didn't particularly enjoy eating and had many food phobias, so I didn't actually feel denied. The ascetic within me was not trying to override impulses that bring pleasure.

Rather, the situation was that I somehow felt I deserved to be punished - i.e. that I should damage myself through starvation. This was because I hated myself -not my physical body per se but myself as a whole. I felt I was abnormal and 'wrong' and so I should annihilate myself. I liked myself more (or maybe hated myself less...) when I ate less.

However, I also derived a huge (illusory) sense of control over my existence through living on only a small amount of food. I was terrified of deviating from a set eating plan - because that would somehow mean (in my mind) that everything was 'out of control'. Even so, I didn't over-estimate calorie intake as a sort of 'safeguard'. Rather my calculations had to be exact.

A:) said...

I can understand the "exaggerating a threat" component.

"Scary foods" (which encompass everything minus like the 10 foods I have weight restored with) hold no temptation to me because the threat of emotional turmoil after the fact, possible weight gain, etc. is so huge to me. Eating the food is simply not worth it.

I was decorating Christmas cookies yesterday and was not tempted at all to eat them -- simply because the "threat" made the temptation seem insiginficat. Eventually -- after a few years of avoiding "pleasurable foods" such as cakes, cookies, etc. they don't seem like foods or temptations anymore simply because they are NOT options to be eaten -- similar to the fact that oen would not eat dog food or candles.

Interesting post Carrie.

(I obviously still have a lot to work on with variety in food :P)

A:)

Anonymous said...

"Fit models": an oxymoron.

Abby said...

Wow. Kim told me to check this post out, as I just wrote something similar (although not nearly as comprehensive or elegant) and it hits home on every single level--as do the corresponding comments.

A lot to think about...

Carrie Arnold said...

Abby,

I *love* the name of your blog- hilarious!

Bella said...

I find that when I'm in a more restrictive/anxious mode, I do overestimate the calories in, and portions of, just about everything. On the other hand, when in binge/bulimic mode (as I have been in the past), it's as much as I can do to eat intuitively and not pile on the pounds. When I "let myself go" that way I do underestimate cals, because I want the food so much that I try to tell myself it isn't as much as I think.

Also, well, I never had a problem with dishes, but if it was something like checking a moderation queue for an online community, writing cards I'd promised to send, etc... I get a lot of anxiety about that sort of thing, and can't rest easily until it's done. At least lately. There have been times in my life when I've been able to be more moderate about important things, because I would trust myself to get them done, even if there was a little pause or delay here and there.

Maybe it has to do with not trusting ourselves. I find that this is when my fear is the strongest -- when I don't trust my own instincts or impulses. It is then that I feel the need to put the control (the brakes) on and slow things down enough so that I can make sure I don't do something "wrong". Which is the perfectionistic, black-and-white attitude again.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote



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