Healthy Change

Fostering better lifestyle behaviors

The Surprising Effects of Wishful Thinking

If someone asked you what you weigh, would you tell the truth?

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Let’s start with a socially inappropriate question: How much do you weigh?

Now that you have a number in your head, let me ask you another question. How much would you say you weighed if an acquaintance rudely asked you? How about if a family member asked you politely? How about a researcher? Would you perhaps give yourself the benefit of, say, 5 or 10 pounds? Who knows—maybe you haven’t weighed yourself in a while, and maybe you do weigh less than you think. But the tendency to present ourselves in a more favorable light is instinctual. It can also be a problem, but perhaps for different reasons than you might assume.

Research has shown, unsurprisingly, that we tend to report weighing less than we actually do. So if I weigh 175 pounds, I might say that I weigh 168 when asked. This tendency holds particularly true for people who are overweight and tend to restrict food intake (diet) often.

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One obvious interpretation of such studies is that many people simply don’t know what they weigh and give themselves the benefit of the doubt. But while there is a grain of truth to this, more people than not seem to have a very good idea of their current weight—indeed, studies show that when people know their weight will be verified by a scale after being questioned, they are much more accurate in reporting their weight.

So what is really going on here?

A recent paper examined this question, reviewing a substantial number of studies related to the topic, and found some interesting trends: You might think that overweight individuals are more likely to under-report their weight because they are concerned with how others see them. But this does not appear to be the case. The evidence supports the idea that under-reporting weight instead serves a self-protective function. By thinking of yourself as thinner, it may be possible to avoid some of the self-judgment and shame we might feel related to our appearance.

This makes sense when considered in the context of our stigmatizing society. Body shape is, inexplicably, still fair game for many people to comment on and make fun of. Just tune into the late-night talk show monologues. Or peruse the internet, full of fat-shaming memes and tweets. This pervasive negativity towards larger body shapes, and the resulting discrimination and shame that people experience, becomes internalized—to varying degrees for different people, of course. Body weight can come to elicit a variety of negative thoughts and feelings. Trying to convince yourself that you weigh less can protect you from that, in the short term. In other words, if asked about my weight right now, if I shoot for lower, even knowing somewhere deep inside that it’s not true, I can stave off some momentary internal shame and judgment.

It’s not lying; it seems to work on a more subconscious level. And it makes sense. Why wouldn’t you protect yourself in any subtle way possible? The issue is that the act of protecting yourself might in fact be part of the problem to begin with.

Under-reporting weight seems to provide temporary relief or escape from a threat of negative thoughts and feelings (the result of having to report your weight). Emotional and binge eating operate in a similar manner. Eating tasty, high-calorie foods can provide comfort or relief in the short-term, at the expense of long-term health and well-being. It’s this core relationship between eating and comfort that partially contributes to our expanding waistlines.

We need to mount an agenda to massively reduce weight stigmatization. In this day and age, it is incredible that so much hate is met with so little outrage. Technological advances have provided new ways to stigmatize more effectively and often with anonymity, and so in many respects we are worse off now than we were 10 years ago.

However, given that change is slow, it is also on us to examine how we relate to the effects of a history of body-shape stigmatization. If you imagine or report weighing less than you do, there seems little harm in that. But if that is part of a general tendency to seek comfort and relief from unwanted thoughts and feelings, it could be indicative of a larger pattern of behavior contributing to worsening health and well-being.

In short, when it comes to our own thoughts and feelings, we could all benefit from becoming a little more comfortable being uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean we buy into negative self-judgment and resign ourselves to feeling down, but rather that we allow ourselves to have an ebb and flow of positive and negative thoughts and emotions without having to intervene via unhealthy behavior.

Doing so would go a long way towards creating and sustaining a healthier lifestyle.

 

Source Article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25053217

Dr. Jason Lillis is author of The Diet Trap: Feed Your Psychological Needs and End the Weight Loss Struggle available on Amazon and where all books are sold.

Jason Lillis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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