Much of the work in my lab focuses on the self-control of health behaviors. Why do reasonable, well-informed individuals who want to behave in healthy ways fail to do so? We seek to answer questions about which individuals will attempt to control their health behaviors, as well as the factors that influence when they will succeed. We also focus closely on the particular health behaviors of dieting and eating. We are interested in what makes people diet, what the outcomes of dieting are, and what affects how people feel about their bodies. In terms of eating, we are interested in the predictors of eating in everyday life.
1. When will individuals succeed at controlling their health behaviors?
Attention and Self-Control: It is commonly thought that when people are unable to focus their attention on their goals and behavior, they are likely to lose control – to act in ways that they do not intend or desire. Our work shows that instead of leading to a loss of control, lack of attention simply increases the extent to which people’s behavior is influenced by the most noticeable features of their environment (which do not have such a large effect when people are able to focus their full attention). In cases where the environment contains highly salient reminders of one’s goals (e.g., a scale as a reminder of a diet), individuals who are distracted may control their behaviors better (e.g., eat less) than if they were not distracted. This formulation helps us to explain individuals’ complicated patterns of self-control successes and failures, and it moves beyond earlier views that suggest that self-control is always lost when attentional resources are limited. With our collaborator, Andrew Ward, we have provided evidence for this counter-intuitive prediction in the health-related domains of eating, smoking (with Erika Westling), and aggression (with Erika, David Creswell, and Jeff Ebert). We refer to this state of distraction as “attentional myopia,” and we have done some work distinguishing this model from Walter Mishel’s hot-cool model of self-regulation (which we love, but it is a different model).
Another angle on this model that we are focusing on is examining different ways attentional myopia can be brought about (cognitive load, alcohol, physiological arousal, sleep deprivation, aging). Our friend and aging expert Derek Isaacowitz is helping us explore these new ways, and is using his eye tracker machine to see if these forms of distraction affect the focus of our gaze. We plan to study the sleep deprivation angle at the UCLA Dance Marathon this year.
Ashley Moskovich has been exploring the type and amount of cognitive activity that leads to attentional myopia in a series of eating studies where subjects are enticed with potato chips and dip. We are systematically varying the amount of cognitive activity that participants must engage in at the same time as eating.
And Alicia Chang is exploring whether attentional myopia might be useful as a dieting strategy. She is having dieters eat in their real life (imagine that!) while using dieting cues and different levels of attentional load. Andrew is trying the same thing in Philadelphia with smokers.
2. What are the causes and effects of dieting?
Just Noticeable Difference in Body Size: Women do not seem to have a good sense of what their body looks like. Years ago, when Kelli Garcia and I confronted female UCLA students with their image in our magic distorted mirror, they rarely noticed that they were looking at a slightly fatter or slightly thinner version of themselves. Since then, Kathleen Lambird, Janet Tomiyama, and I have taken pictures of students and distorted them, making several fatter versions and several thinner versions. Using psychophysical techniques taught to us by our charming collaborator Steve Engel, we have found that women think they are thinner than they actually are. Even when they see a picture that has been distorted to be thinner than they are actually are, women tend to think it is fatter than them. We are currently linking this information to women’s body satisfaction and dieting goals.
Emotion Regulation and Eating Pathology: For her dissertation, Kathleen examined the links between adolescents’ emotion regulation abilities and their symptoms of disordered eating. She used the Articulated Thoughts in Simulated Situations paradigm to collect rich data on how adolescents regulate their emotions during stressful encounters, and then she used that information to compare girls who had problematic eating behaviors to those who did not. She found that difficulties in regulating emotions were linked to eating problems.
Media Images and Body Satisfaction: Ann-Marie Lew has explored the relationship between media images of models and women’s levels of body satisfaction. Research has found that viewing pictures of skinny models tends to make women feel bad about their own body. Ann-Marie thought women might not feel so bad if they compared themselves to the models in other ways – in areas in which the women feel that they have an advantage over the models. She found that if women focused on the domain of intelligence, then they did not show the typical decrease in body image satisfaction. For her dissertation, she did an intervention study which found similar results.
What are the long-term effects of dieting? The students in my Psychology of Eating seminar many years ago (Ann-Marie, Erika, and Janet, plus our friends Barbra Samuels and Jay Chatman) and I reviewed research on the long-term maintenance of weight loss after dieting, and we found clear evidence that dieting, defined as restricting calorie intake in order to lose weight, does not result in sustained weight loss. Studies on the long-term outcomes of dieting show that from one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets, and these studies likely underestimate the extent to which dieting is counter-productive because of several methodological problems, all of which bias the studies toward showing successful maintenance of weight loss. We argue that calorie-restricting diets should not be offered as a treatment for obesity, and should not be funded by Medicare, which aims to fund treatments that have been proven effective. Diets have not been proven effective.
What is the role of chronic stress in dieting, eating, and obesity? Janet is following up the dieting work by exploring the relationship between chronic stress and obesity. She is examining several aspects of the relationship between stress and diet failure. First, she is exploring whether diets fail because they cause chronic stress. Sound crazy? It isn’t! Chronic stress can lead to physiological changes that make weight gain likely. In fact, in two studies now, Janet has shown that dieting does lead to stress, even controlling for how stressed you were before starting the diet. She is now working on a study to explore the particular aspects of dieting that cause stress. Is it the hunger and restriction of eating? Or is it the constant monitoring of calorie intake? Janet is separately manipulating those things and then measuring changes in daily cortisol slopes. Second, she is exploring the interaction between stress and dieting, to see if stressed individuals have different reactions to diets than individuals who are less stressed (or not stressed at all).
What leads to dietary violations in daily life? Our collaborator and UCLA Clinical graduate, Lisa Comer, worked with me and Janet to create a daily diary study of the predictors or eating in everyday life. We used the daily diary methodology to survey people every hour for two days about whether they had eaten that hour and what sorts of things were going on in their day during that hour. We used this methodology with dieters and with non-dieters and found some pretty interesting things about what seemed to matter most in leading to eating and overeating in real life, as opposed to in the lab, where much of the rest of our research takes place.
3. Which individuals will attempt to control their health behaviors?
Optimism and Self-Control: Optimists tend to take better care of their health than pessimists. Can we make people feel optimistic (by using a writing intervention), and if so, do they then take better care of their health? Our past work with HIV-infected women suggests we can. If optimists wrote about a positive future, they became more optimistic and were better able to adhere to their medical treatment. Erika, Kelli, and I followed this up and found that finding meaning (from doing the writing task) causes people to take better care of their health.
Dispositional Motivations and Self-Control: When trying to convince people to change their health behaviors, providers often give them information on the possible illnesses they may contract. According to research on motivation, individuals differ in the extent to which they tend to be responsive to reward cues (approach-oriented) or to punishment cues (avoidance-oriented). David Sherman, John Updegraff, and I have found that individuals who are primarily approach-oriented are more likely to successfully change their behavior when they are provided information on the benefits of such changes. Individuals who are primarily avoidance-oriented, however, are more likely to successfully change their behavior when they are provided with information on the problems associated with failing to change. We have also demonstrated that these effects are mediated both by individual goals and self-efficacy.
4. Other projects associated with the lab
Self-Affirmation and Stress: David just published a cool new study showing that self-affirmations reduce individuals’ physiological response to stress. He stressed out a lot of subjects, and then encouraged some of them to affirm their self. He found that these simple affirmations buffered the unhealthy cortisol response that is typical during these lab stressors. And he has another paper showing that self-affirmation is actually what leads to the health benefits from all those expressive writing interventions.
Self-Esteem and Self-Regulation: One often-cited study in the literature found that individuals with high self-esteem actually self-regulated more poorly after receiving a threat to their ego. Kathleen hypothesized that individuals with true high self-esteem would not fail at self-regulation after an ego threat, but that individuals with defensive self-esteem would. Using a questionnaire measure of defensive self-esteem, she was able to show that only high self-esteem individuals who were also high in defensiveness failed at their task after a threat to their ego. She replicated this study with an implicit measure of defensive self-esteem, and the truly gorgeous paper based on it is in print.
Social Constraints on Sexual Intentions: Mark Huppin has been examining the role played by social constraints on the sexual intentions of males and females. He thinks that if cognitive load wipes out people’s ability to focus on social constraints, males and females will look a lot more like each other in their sexual intentions. He’s shown this once with a questionnaire, and then demonstrated it again after showing students a sexy (if a bit corny!) video.