The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

This Week in Willpower 6/21/2010

A round-up of willpower news you can use.

Each week I scour the web for a round-up of interesting news stories, scientific studies, and oddities on the web. Ladies and gentlemen, this was the week on willpower:

NYT columnist Judith Warner asks the question, "Is our inability to control ourselves the defining feature of our time?" Her round-up of experts argue that lack of self-control is a natural extension of our culture's narcissism and consumer mentality. (If this is true, can I expect an uptick in blog traffic? Hey, just trying to be optimistic--I hear it increases lifespan.)

A new study finds that depression leads to weight gain, but being overweight does not increase your risk of becoming depressed. The report used data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, a 20-year longitudinal study of 5,115 men and women ages 18-30. The type of weight gain associated with depression is increased abdominal, or visceral, fat -- exactly the type associated with cardiovascular disease and increased risk of mortality. This finding reminds me of a comment a physician left on my blog last year: "Happy thoughts are irrelevant to health." This study, and many others, make clear that psychological well-being is certainly not irrelevant to physical health.

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More reason to think carefully about what you eat, and watch out for how labeling can trick us into eating more. A new study shows that people tend to overeat food labeled "organic," assuming it is healthier or has fewer calories than non-organic food. Considering the food in questions was "organic Oreos," I think its safe to say these assumptions aren't good ones. The study also found that the overeating effect was largest for people who care about the environment. Perhaps they feel so good about doing something good for the planet, they cut themselves a little slack on their diet?

Another interesting study, published in Management Science, shows how planting a ringer into a team can make the whole group improve its performance. I admit, I have used this effect to my advantage in my psychology classes. For example, I have been know to invite graduates of a class back to elevate class discussion, or make sure that the first student to present to a group is well-prepared, and will set a high bar. This study, by the way, took place at General Motors. Given all the troubles the auto industry has had with productivity and profit, I hope someone in management keeps up with the scientific literature.

Thanks to the Obesity Panacea blog for pointing out the potentially harmful consequences of planned tax changes in Canada. Last month, I wrote about research showing that taxing something (e.g. junk food) reliably reduces consumption, even more than discounting something (e.g. healthy food) increases consumption. The Canadian tax changes will increase the cost of staying physically active by adding new taxes to gym memberships, sporting goods, bikes, and other fitness-related products. Come on, Canada, how about taxing something that doesn't have the potential to dramatically improve your nation's physical and emotionally well-being?

Lest you think those fun folks at the Obesity Panacea blog only have politics on their minds, check out their humorous take on commercials that imply junk food are "a great source of energy." Here's an excerpt:

"Despite all of these things, the makers of Nutella still claim that it can be part of a complete breakfast. How is that possible? The complete breakfast that they suggest includes multigrain bread and juice (which many people would argue is still not an ideal breakfast), but the point is that the breakfast is complete without the Nutella. If there's anything that I learned from commercials during Saturday morning cartoons, it's that anything can be part of a complete breakfast! That doesn't make it healthy food choice."

Fine willpower wisdom, indeed.

That's all, folks. See you next week!

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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