The Myth of Willpower and Obesity

This content is taken from Chapter 2 of Gut Feeling

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“None of us wanted to be the bass player. In our minds, he was the fat guy who always played at the back.”

Paul McCartney

I think thin people are lucky. No more, no less – although they think they have better judgement and stronger willpower. That is part of the problem, why so much of the advice is wrong. In a curious way, the worse the obesity crisis gets, the more thin people feel smug and superior.

The whole Willpower Myth – that we can solve the obesity crisis if fat people showed more mental strength – is really about letting thin people pat themselves on the back. If fat people are mentally weak then, by definition, thin people are mentally strong; and that’s a nice thought.

Hopefully, you may now accept that being overweight is not a deliberate choice. It is driven by bodily feelings which a thin person does not get to the same degree as a fat person. However, many will still respond by arguing we just need to show more willpower (like them). The brackets are usually left unsaid.

A University of Chicago survey in 2016,[13] described by lead researcher Jennifer Benz as, to her knowledge, the most comprehensive view of Americans’ beliefs about obesity, showed that three-quarters of the wide range of people questioned, both thin and overweight, thought the main cause of obesity was a lack of willpower.

The New York Times reported the findings like this, “Researchers say obesity, which affects one-third of Americans, is caused by interactions between the environment and genetics and has little to do with sloth or gluttony. There are hundreds of genes that can predispose to obesity in an environment where food is cheap, and portions are abundant.

“Yet three-quarters of survey participants said obesity resulted from a lack of willpower. The best treatment, they said, is to take responsibility for yourself, go on a diet and exercise.

“Obesity specialists said the survey painted an alarming picture. They said the findings went against evidence about the science behind the disease, and showed that outdated notions about obesity persisted, to the detriment of those affected.”

The survey questioned 1,500 people of all sizes; 94% of those who took part in the survey had tried to lose weight through diet or exercise. A quarter had tried many diets, and one-in-seven (around 15%) had tried more than 20 diets.

As Dr. Louis Aronne, the director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian, explained, “Trying 20 times and not succeeding — is that lack of willpower, or a problem that can’t be treated with willpower?”


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No excuse

The aim of knocking down the arguments about willpower and elevating other elements, such as environment and genetics, is not to give fat people an excuse for being weak-willed. The point is that if we accept environmental and genetic contributions to obesity, we can also try to find environmental and genetic answers to reducing obesity.

If we look in the right areas, we are more likely to find the right answers.

As Dr. Stuart Flint, a psychologist with a focus on the psycho-social effects of obesity, told Sky News: pointing the finger is easy, gaining a full explanation is harder.

“We know there are over 100 different factors that contribute to overweight and obesity and it‘s time the public were really given the information they deserve… that obesity is complex… it’s not simple,” he said.

The belief in ‘willpower’ is a barrier we need to get over. For a start, willpower is a vague and much-misunderstood concept. It is about a person’s ability to control his or her actions consciously. We like to think willpower is a positive; we like to boast about it, we think it represents an example of our mental strength. We like to think we have lots of it; it is a sign of good character.

So it may come as a surprise to many that psychologists can influence and predict our behaviour to prove we have very little willpower, estimated at just 5-10% of our actions. Even worse news, when we really do show willpower, it often has a negative effect. To put it more simply, genuine willpower is small and makes us do things worse!

A research university in Ohio[14]showed that when we actively resist nice food, our performance levels drop because we fail to concentrate as effectively on the tasks in hand.

They set problem-solving tests for people sitting at a table with a bowl of radishes on one side and a bowl of chocolate, cookies, and sweets on the other. One group was told they could eat the radishes, but not the chocolate, cookies, and sweets; another group could eat as they wished – (I’m not sure they needed to enforce a ‘no radishes’ policy.) There was also a control group with no food on the table.

The problem-solving test involved drawing a figure in a continuous line without crossing the line or re-tracing. Unknown to the participants, it was designed to be impossible. They were not being measured on their ability, but to see how hard they tried and how they coped with failure. The group restricted to the radishes (they could not eat the nice food) did much worse in their reactions than those who could eat the nice food and those with no food at all, both in terms of how hard they tried and in controlling frustration. To paraphrase slightly, when the going got tough, those eating the cookies and sweets got going. The radish group were distracted by the nice food they could not eat, and had to utilise their willpower to stay on task. The conclusion was that consciously avoiding ‘bad’ food through willpower negatively impacts performance.

Yale University’s John Bargh has undertaken decades of research on how easily our actions can be influenced by external factors. Along with Tanya Chartrand, then both at New York University, they wrote, “…most of a person’s everyday life is determined not by their conscious intentions and deliberate choices but by mental processes that are put into motion by features of the environment and that operate outside of conscious awareness and guidance.”[15]

They talk both about the daily manipulation of opinions and actions. For example, people rub their face more when with someone else is rubbing their face. People using the same mannerisms tend to like each other more, which is knowledge that people often deliberately exploit when dating or selling. They also looked at the refusal of people to believe their own actions are anything other than fully self-controlled.

The classic example taught on most management courses is getting someone to stay in a room after a fire alarm goes off, just by putting them in with a group of actors and actresses who are briefed to be nonchalant and not move. It is classic herd effect and amazing how often we can be influenced to react in a way that is illogical.

Because self-control can play such a big part in distracting us from efficiently carrying out any other task, humans have needed to minimise the impact of willpower in order to aid survival. Psychologist Roy Baumeister, of Florida State University, along with Kristin Sommer, concluded in 1997 that we only successfully use conscious self-control for around 5% of the time.

Cognitive therapist Dawn Walton, the author of The Caveman Rules of Survival, told the Huffington Post, “Most of us believe we have conscious control of our choices. It’s simply not true. Your subconscious is in charge for at least 90 percent of the day.

“That part of your brain is primitive, emotional, and quite frankly, stupid; but it means well. It is always looking to make you feel better. So when you find that eating that bar of chocolate makes you feel happy, even for a moment, you know that comes from your subconscious.”

Baumeister and Sommer argue that most people estimate their own self-control at 90+%, a complete reverse of all the research evidence. We continually talk about making choices, though we are far more pre-programmed than we imagine.

Other researchers offer similar perspectives.

Dr. Susan Jebb of Oxford University told The Independent that the obesity crisis cannot be pinned to a “national collapse in willpower. … It’s something about our environment that has changed,” she said. “You need, in some cases, a superhuman effort to reduce your food intake. Is that their fault? I don’t think it is.”

Professor Michael Cowley of Monash University, Australia, told The Daily Mail, “People may have a tendency towards obesity even before they eat their first meal. Obese people are not necessarily lacking willpower. Their brains do not know how full or how much fat they have stored, so the brain does not tell the body to stop refuelling. Subsequently, their body’s ability to lose weight is significantly reduced.”

Obesity expert Dr. Donna Ryan, Professor Emeritus at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said, “It’s frustrating to see doctors and the general public stigmatize patients with obesity and blame these patients, ascribing attributes of laziness or lack of willpower to them. We would never treat patients with alcoholism or any chronic disease this way. It’s so revealing of a real lack of education and knowledge.”

Fat people themselves often give in to the perception that we lack the right attitude. One person, in a Fat Class I went to, ranked his determination to lose weight as just five out of ten, something that was leapt on by our instructor as an area that could be positively improved. The fat person’s logic was that as he was fat, so he cannot have attached much importance to trying to get thin. He would rather admit to bad decision-making than mental weakness. Increase the importance and decrease the weight, seemed the simple equation.

However, the same person was prepared to work a night shift, then jump straight in his car, drive a couple of hundred miles, risk traffic gridlock because of ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ road closures, sleep in his car outside the meeting hall rather than going home and risking the traffic jams a second time, all to make the next meeting of our Fat Class. Does that really sound like five out of ten commitment to you?

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