Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

Be aware! You might lose your mind when trying to lose weight

By Haotian Zhou


About one and a half months ago, as I was stepping out of the shower, I caught a glimpse of the man in mirror and as the King of Pop once said “no message could have been any clearer”. Unlike pandas or puppies, my protruding belly is not cute at all! Having been disgusted by my fast expanding girth, I immediately raised my WeightWatchCon to Level 1. I threw away all the cookies I stashed for the coming winter and planned the most grueling exercise regime my fat-infested body could possibly endure.  A bit over a month later, I emerged out of this battle of the will triumphantly with a newly minted Ryan Goslinesque hot torso. Little did I know at that time that as I was exerting my willpower against all those temptations that would lure me back to my former wanton foodie lifestyle, I was depriving my mind the energy it would need to keep me from forgetting important stuff like writing the blog at the end of each month!

Unlike what you might have believed to be the case, committing something to the memory is not a passive process. Our brains have to exert a huge amount of effort to convert what we see or hear into a format that is compatible with the brain’s storage system, a process dubbed encoding by psychologists.  Therefore, any other brain acts that compete with the memory system for mental juices would certainly interfere with the encoding process. Or so claimed the two Duke University psychologists, Yu-Chin Chiu and Tobias Egner. Unlike you and I, academic researchers cannot just making some seemingly sensible claims and call it a day. To earn their keep, they need to provide hard evidence to back up whatever they claim to be so. Chiu and Egner decided to prove their hypothesis by showing that resisting temptation would impair memory because acting against one’s urge is like the antithesis of cakewalk (even for Jesus!).

Image ©: Simon James 2008

Chiu and Egner asked a group of participants to play a simple computer game where they were supposed to peck a key (of course with their fingers rather than beaks) whenever a face showed up on screen except for the few occasions where the face was accompanied by a beep sound. Participants were told that they had to withhold from pecking the key whenever a face showed up with some noise. Presumably, since participants established the habit of pecking the key in response to faces, not pecking the key when a face showed up would require some sheer power of the will. Afterwards, the researchers tested whether the participants recognized any of the faces that were displayed during the game. It turned out that participants were more likely to forget about those faces accompanied the finger-blocking beep sound. And this is only to resist the “temptation” to press the keyboard. Just think about the kind of memory toll it would take on a person when he had to fight urge to devour those unctuous Eli’s cheesecakes and dragged his lazy ass to the elliptical machine every single day!

Have you ever wondered why those good-looking celebrities, like the Kardashians, keep making dumb statements that often jeopardize their own careers? I think this research provides some answer to this puzzle. In order to keep their bodies lean and mean, they have to battle against their sugar-craving and couch-petal yearnings every day. That certainly would not leave much mental juice for them to mull over what is about to come out their mouths. So, sometimes when faced with a plate of perfectly charred ribeye steak, you just gotta say what the heck.



Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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