Lecture # 3
Weight loss is one of the most sensitive subjects to teach about since there are so many
students in the class who struggle with their weight. Many feel badly about how much they
– Even though weight loss is a very common goal it is one that many people struggle
Is trying to lose weight a healthy goal or a maladaptive, false hope?
– Baumeister talks about many self control problems that we face in our everyday
lives, but he says that there is something special and especially difficult about
setting goals to try and lose weight.
– There is something uniquely difficult about losing weight.
– Her BMI is exactly where it should be but she herself says she wishes she was 10
– She weighs 145 pounds and is 5'7. She says to stay this way she has to exercise 1
hour a day and constantly monitor how many calories she is taking in. She has to
always be thinking about her weight, exercise and calories.
– Until the age of 18 she never thought about weight. People told her when she was
going to be in her first year at university that she should be careful since she will put
on some weight (freshman 20 = gain 20 pounds)
– She gained 60 pounds in her first year.
– She began all sorts of dieting.
– Saw doctor and he said there was nothing wrong and being chubby was just part of
who you are.
– She continued different types of diets and throughout university she never got her
weight under control.
– After university she started dieting and exercising and got weight down to 130 and
she was very happy.
– When she weighed 130 she became overwhelmed by thoughts of food and
cravings, it was making her anxious and so decided to let her weight go up.
– Have since been able to keep her weight at 145 for about the last 10 years.
– She does have to be conscious of what she is eating and exercising.
– Is there something pathological with her concern about eating and calories and
– 10 years ago most people would say she has some sort of eating problem, she is a
chronic dieter and too pre-occupied by food and there is something wrong.
– In recent years the view has changed quite dramatically where now most
psychologists would now say that what she is doing is healthy and adaptive.
– Actual weight 152 verse ideal weight of 124.
– This difference of 28 pounds causes a lot of distress for a lot of women.
– This difference is much larger than it used to be, average used to be 142 and ideal
weight used to be 132.
– The discrepancy between the actual and the ideal can cause discouragement but it
might also lead people to set goals and lose weight and try to get towards their
ideal. – But then the question is whether this is a realistic goal? if your 152, can you aim
to get down to 124?
Seligman after concluding his literature review concluded that treating people who were
overweight is one of the most intractable and difficult psychological problems.
- In his book he calls it the Oprah phenomenon.
- Losing the weight is not the problem, keeping it off is.
– We have a genetically determined set point which our body will gravitate towards.
We can only vary from this set point by 10% up or down.
– Our weight really isn't under conscious control and that there is unconscious bodily
processes that will kick in. Once we get to the outer limits of the 10% our system
will prevent us from losing any weight or gaining anymore weight.
– There is clear research that when people move down 10% below their set point
they start to begin to have images, thoughts and desires about food more
frequently and to some extent almost uncontrollably.
– This happens because we are evolutionary prepared to respond to starvation. It's
as if there is a threat of a famine and the body will kick in and try to make you find
– Besides the cognitive and emotional changes, the other thing that seems to change
is our metabolism. So that when we start losing 5-8% of our weight, our metabolism
slows down so that doing the same amount of activity we now start losing less and
– Our natural weight is likely to be very discrepant from our ideal weight because
ideal weight is defined by sociocultural factors while the actual weight is more
genetically and biologically influenced.
STUDY looking at metabolism issue:
– 100 P's, agreed to live in a hospital metabolism ward for 1 year. They agree to lead
a sedentary lifestyle.
– The study was set up so that all the P's would not do any spontaneous eating, all
the meals would be at the hospital and they were tightly controlled by the hospital
– They all had to have had a stable weight for the past 6 months that didn't involve
any dieting, exercising or any self-control attempts.
– Idea was that at start of study they probably got people who were at their set point
weight, they then set it up so that based on the food the participants were given
their weight was made to increase by 10%. They measured the number of calories
the P's expended during the day.
– They found that when people reached 10% weight gain their daily energy
expenditure shot up by 25%,
– So there was an automatic compensation to get the weight back down.
– They then brought everyone back down their baseline weight, waited a month
and then brought them down to 10% below their set point and measured their
number for calories.
– When people were at their lower end of their set point range, their daily energy
expenditure decreased by 18%. Seligman would say that there are cognitive, emotional, and physiological processes that will
counteract our attempts to lose weight beyond a certain point.
– Just like Eilen Barten (case study) found that at 125 she couldn't maintain that
weight without constantly thinking about food and being overwhelmed by impulses.
Most people assume that if someone is having weight problems it has to do with a lack of self
– Baumeister shows that there is not that much of a correlation between someone's
regular capacity for self control and how they do in the area of weight.
– There seems to be something uniquely different about the area of weight.
Polivy & Herman wrote an important article where they called trying to lose weight a false
– They argue that there is a problem in our society because the weight lose industry
is worth about $50 billion and it strives for 2 reasons:
1) They make gigantic promises
2) They count on repeat business
– It's a great industry because you know that most people who are going to try
your products are going to fail and then all you have to do is find a new
product that looks different.
Based on years of research they outlined a series of steps that unfold when we decide to go
on a diet.
1)There is a problem with expectations before people even set up their diet.
– The major problem is that people are very unrealistic so they expect to lose a lot of
weight and lose it much more quickly than is probably possible. And they expect it
to have powerful ramifications in all areas of their life.
– Study where they asked university women who were planning a diet how much
weight they wanted to lose in the next month. The mean amount that women
wanted to lose was 10 Lbs, while most research will show you that the most you
can lose and keep off in a month is 2 or 3 pounds.
– Thus the initial expectations are too high and people think it will be too easy.
2) Then they make the commitment and they feel good and feel like they have a sense of
– she found that when people make the decision to begin a diet it actually feels really
good where the person feels a sense of mastery, a sense of control, their self
esteem go up, other people usually commend them for it.
– So saying you are going to pursue a diet is something that makes you feel good
and leads other people to reinforce you.
3) Almost always people will succeed at their diet for the first few weeks. Thus it is common to
have initial success (we all succeed before we fail).
– The reason we can succeed early is because it is relatively easy to lose those first
few pounds. But as you get further and further from the biological set point it will
become more and more difficult.
4) After a month our progress will plateau and we may not be able to lose anymore weight
and we may even start to gain again.
5) People are still working hard at it but not losing anymore weight and this is very
discouraging. – People will either say I FAILED or I HAVE TO ABANDON THIS DIET
6) After you say I FAILED you now have to make attributions.
– This has to do with why you succeed or failed.
– Internal versus external and stable versus unstable
– The kind of attribution you make will probably determine whether you try this
– They looked at the attributions people make wen they fail at their diets and they
found that there are 2 reasons people give for their failure.
a) I didn't give enough effort
b) I tried very hard, I have the ability, I must have had the wrong diet.
– They don't say they failed because they lacked ability, ability is an internal stable
– People don't say "I just don't have the ability to change my weight, it's biological
and even my will and best ideas can't change that"
– People say "I didn't give it enough effort" this is an internal unstable attribution. I
was trying hard but i ran out of effort.
– The difference between saying I lacked the ability versus saying I didn't give it
enough effort is that if you make the attribution to effort it increases the likelihood
that you will try it again.
– Even though almost all of us fail at our diets we still keep trying over and over
– I must have had the wrong diet and therefore need to find a new and different diet.
If that one won't work I'll have to find another one. This is an external unstable
attribution that will also lead people to continually shop around for the latest new
7) After people make the attributions, people won't try to start a new diet right away. But there
are other emotional, behavioral and physiological consequences of failing at diets.
– Seligman believes that failing at diets can make you feel depressed. He once
wrote that the reason males and females differ in the rates of depression could
partly be because of the pressures that women feel to have a thin curvaceous body
and the pressures they feel to try to control their weight and the fact that they are
– Thus there might be a negative impact on people's feelings about themselves, on
their emotions, their self image.
– Baumeister: It's pretty clear that there are physiological consequences of failing at
diets. In research in animals, they showed that the first time