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Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
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Willpower Failures: When Good Intentions and Outside Forces Collide

By Lynne Gots, posted on July 7th, 2013.

I just cleaned out the fridge. No more unidentifiable slimy greens in the vegetable crisper, shriveled limes in the fruit bin, and molding jars of pickled okra and salsa on the shelves. I’m planning a roasted eggplant dip and cucumber salad for dinner tonight to use up the last of this week’s CSA produce.

I was feeling pretty virtuous until I opened the freezer. Sharing space with the plastic containers of precooked beans, quinoa, and brown rice, alongside the loaves of artisian whole-grain bread, were three half-gallons of ice cream, three pints of premium gelato (there had been four until I polished one off last night—“to free up shelf space”) and three pints of frozen yogurt. I’d purchased one of the gelatos and one of the frozen yogurts. My husband had stockpiled the rest.

He’s pretty health-conscious most of the time, avoiding excess salt, eating massive salads every night, and eschewing red meat. Formerly a cooked vegetable hater, he’s even become a devotee of roasted Brussels sprouts and kale. So how to explain his frozen dessert hoarding habit?

I found the answer in a New York Times article, “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” Several studies of consumer choices in fast-food restaurants found that posting calorie information did little to reduce calorie consumption overall. In fact, at Subway, people actually ate higher calorie meals despite reading the nutritional information, possibly because the chain offerred a $5 special on footlong subs.

Behaviorial economists conclude that good intentions take a back seat to economic incentives when we’re choosing what to order in a restaurant. That also seems to be what’s going on when my husband shops at the Giant. When I’ve asked him to cut back on buying ice cream because I end up eating more of it than he does, he says, “But it was on sale. Two for the price of one!”

I can’t get upset with him. It’s not his fault. Behavioral economics made him do it.

So I guess I don’t have to beat myself up either for lacking the willpower to eat fruit for dessert instead of gelato. And for not choosing the frozen yogurt—which, as I said, is in ample supply in my freezer and would be a lower calorie option. Because another study of consumer behavior found that people presented with a range of healthy, neutral, and unhealthy menu items most often went for the unhealthy foods.

As psychologists do, the researcher coined a term to explain the tendency to make a nutritionally unsound decision when more nutritious choices are available:  “vicarious goal fulfillment.” Just seeing the healthy menu options apparently makes us feel healthier and thus gives us the license to overindulge.

So the next time I’m tucking into a bowl of Talenti caramel cookie crunch, I won’t blame myself for my lack of willpower. And I might even top it with a dollop of whipped cream and a drizzle of chocolate syrup.

Because I’ll know it’s just a case of vicarious goal fulfillment.



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This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

Contact Dr. Gots

202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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