Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!


  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.

Wild horses: Harnessing your love intensity


For a few months after it was published in January 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” about the 36 questions to increase intimacy seemed to be everywhere. People shared it all over Twitter and Facebook, sometimes cynically, other times hopefully. This article and these questions, originally from a 1997 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin claimed to have (at least) a partial solution to the time-old question: Can you choose who you love? Catron shared her experience testing these questions with a stranger, who she ultimately fell in love with and was dating by the time the article was published.

More broadly, this article raises a fair question and an intriguing proposition: maybe we can control the choice of who we love. Or, perhaps, more specifically, we can cultivate the strength of our love for a person. A recent study by Langeslag and van Strien (2016)[1] found that, in fact, love may be less like a light switch and more like a volume setting. volumeIn other words, people likely have the capacity to change the intensity of their love for someone. And there’s an upside to that, of course. As a relationship evolves, it takes on a new depth leading to greater feelings of intimacy and more intense love. But sometimes—often—it doesn’t. People break up. They fall out of love. Sometimes, you love what you can’t have. What then? Who hasn’t been in a situation where they were on the receiving end of inadequate love or where they couldn’t reciprocate the love someone else had for them? Regardless of the position, it’s often devastating.

What do I mean by love? To those who are currently in love, especially in the beginning stages, it defies explanation. It just IS. But love has been defined and measured in many ways. For this study, Langeslag and van Strien focus on two components of romantic love: infatuation (i.e., passion, attraction) and attachment (emotional bonding or intimacy). They recruited 40 participants, half of whom were currently in a romantic relationship and the other half of whom had recently experienced a break-up. People viewed 30 pictures of their partner (or ex-partner) for four rounds while an EEG recorded their brain activity. In the last two rounds, they were asked to use reappraisal (i.e., reinterpreting a situation to change its emotional meaning) when viewing each picture. Most importantly, people who had recently been through a break-up were instructed to use reappraisal to decrease their feelings of love by focusing on negative aspects of the ex-partner or the relationship (e.g., “We fight a lot” or “She’s lazy”). In contrast, participants currently in a relationship used reappraisal to increase their love feelings (e.g., “She’s so funny” or “We’ll get married someday”). People also recorded their levels of infatuation and attachment to their (ex-)partners before and after the EEG. It should also be noted that these participants reported feeling that love was uncontrollable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who viewed pictures of their exes who used negative reappraisal reported feeling less infatuated and less attached after the images than before. People who used positive reappraisal of their current partners reported higher feelings of infatuation and attachment. And, most convincingly, EEG reports corresponded with these self-reports. In other words, people weren’t just telling the researchers what they wanted to hear or were tricking themselves into thinking they were less heartbroken or more in love than was true. The pattern of brain activity suggested these shifts in thinking were genuine. Now was this a permanent fix? That’s less likely, but there’s no reason to suggest that cognitive reappraisal is a tool that can’t be used in a person’s life just like it was used in a lab setting.

The implications, of course, are encouraging. Using cognitive reappraisal to decrease love intensity after a break-up can speed folks along in the recovery process. For people in long-term relationships, where it’s natural for infatuation or even attachment to fade over time[2], cognitive reappraisal may be a useful tool in maintaining feelings of love. And sure, there are some relationship that aren’t meant to last for a variety of reasons. However, this study suggests that regardless of whether you’re newly single or attached, you possess the capacity to train your brain to feel better. How’s that for a happy ending?


Otters mate for life. No love regulation needed.

[1] Langeslag & van Strien. (2016). Regulation of romantic love feelings: Preconceptions, strategies, and feasibility. PLoS One, 11, 1-29.

[2] Langeslag, Muris, & Franken. (2013). Measuring romantic love: Psychometric properties of the Infatuation and Attachment Scales. The Journal of Sex Research, 50, 739-747.

White Privilege at the voting booth: How pervasive is white privilege?


Image from Quote Addicts

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote a famous piece called, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”1 In the essay, she discusses how belonging to advantaged groups, like white people or men, contributes to the ways that we navigate and perceive our worlds. She makes a stirring point about how easy it is to recognize racism, but that we often have a difficult time seeing how we may be advantaged due to the existence of that racism. You don’t not need to be engaging in racist behavior, using racial epithets or endorsing the bigotries of others in order to be advantaged by societal attitudes. The sad thing, McIntosh points out, is that people who are oppressive in their societal roles are often unaware that they are occupying roles at all.

For instance, people don’t readily recognize that they are more likely to hire white people over people of color, but research shows that this is indeed the case.2 When researchers sent out identical resumes, but with black or white sounding names, people with white sounding names received 50% more interview requests.2 White people are often convinced that anti-white sentiment is actually becoming a bigger problem than anti-black bias, and that attempts to decrease racism are a “zero-sum game” that increases bias towards whites.3 And that’s pretty damn troubling, y’all. As Jen pointed out last week, implicit bias against black people, and black men in particular, results in a larger number of escalated police encounters. While white people are becoming increasingly concerned about being blamed for the problems of minorities, black people are literally worried about being killed in the middle of the day during a routine traffic stop.

As per usual, arguments that equate racism and “reverse racism”* present a false equivalence: there is no systematic disadvantage to being white. White people are armed with our invisible knapsack of privilege. We dominate accounts of history, we see images that look like ourselves everywhere and we can be assured that when things don’t go our way, it is likely not because we’re white. Peggy McIntosh so eloquently hits on the subtlety of privilege in her essay, so I will borrow some of her words. “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is,” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race,” and  “I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”

What McIntosh is tapping into here is how unrecognizable the receipt of privilege is. We are not aware that it is happening unless we attempt to be aware of it. We enjoy these invisible privileges, and resent others for suggesting that we have such privileges at all. Even within the context of our presidential election, we have one candidate who is recognizing the disadvantages that black citizens are experiencing on all levels of the legal system, and we have another suggesting that a racist, unconstitutional policy should be widely implemented in order to restore “law and order” to our cities.

For some, the solution is this simple. Black neighborhoods are more violent, therefore black people are more violent, therefore we need to police them with more vigor. For others, there is recognition that the problems in black neighborhoods have much to do with the lack of white privilege. Lack of access to quality education, lack of exposure to suitable role models, lack of mentorship from non-family members, lack of networking contacts in hiring positions, lack of parental free-time to help with home education…You could go on for days. The fact is that there is a flip side to implicit bias, and it’s this kind of implicit inflation. There’s a famous saying, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Sometimes, we simply can’t take credit for everything that we have. We didn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Sometimes, we received some of those things simply because we are white, or we at least had easier access to them because we have racial privilege. And make no mistake, there are plenty of kinds of privilege. Class, male, and heterosexual privilege all exist as well. People who are advantaged in one domain are not necessarily advantaged in all domains.

In election years in particular, it’s important to recognize where our thinking may suggest that we have a narrow perspective on the issue. Barack and Michelle Obama have recently talked about how third-party votes in this election are votes for Donald Trump. People who disagree have taken to online forums declaring that they are simply voting their conscience, and not violating their own sense of integrity. Well, the next president will choose at least 2 Supreme Court justices, will have access to the nuclear codes and has the ability to set women’s, minority and LGBT rights back by several years. But at least you can tuck your integrity into your invisible knapsack.

*In quotes, because it doesn’t exist. Anti-white bias, prejudice or discrimination, sure, but not racism, due to a lack of systematic disadvantage due to being white.

  1. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study4, 165-169.
  2. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review94(4), 991-1013.
  3. Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 215-218.


Forecasting Self-Control

Today’s guest writer is Andrew Hall, a current social psychology PhD student at Northwestern University.head 8

Have you ever established plans to maintain a healthy weight or to exercise more, only to find that the presence of sweets or the temptation of television steers you away from your lofty goal? If you answered yes to this question, you may not be alone: people might frequently craft flawed predictions of their own ability to exert self-control in future situations, making for disagreements between what is predicted and what is actually achieved when trying to exert self-control. In a new line of research, social psychologists are investigating whether this perceived inaccuracy in self-control predictions—termed “self-control forecasting” in the literature—is a commonly-occurring phenomenon in human behavior and, potentially, a quality that could impact the way that we approach goal-setting and goal-attainment moving forward.

But what exactly is self-control? We define self-control as the process by which one alters one’s immediate thoughts, emotions, or behaviors in order to promote future goals or idealized states [1]. In other words, self-control translates to restraining current impulses (e.g., watching television) in favor of actions that move a person toward a desired future state (e.g., paying bills on time). If there are inaccuracies in the way that one “forecasts” self-control, then there are discrepancies between one’s predicted ability to resist these current impulses in favor of desired future states and one’s actual behavior when confronted with the self-control situation.

Although the qualities of self-control predictions have not been thoroughly investigated in the psychological literature, anecdotally, we know that these predictions may not be consistently accurate. This reasoning largely draws from research on a related subject, that of affective forecasting. Affective forecasting describes a person’s ability to predict his or her future emotional or “affective” states [2][3]. People have been shown to make flawed predictions of their future affective states, tending to overestimate both the intensity and duration of emotional reactions [2][4][3]. Researchers of self-control forecasting attempt to draw this same conclusion about behavioral prediction: could it be possible that humans are just as bad at predicting future ability to exert self-control as they are at predicting future affective states?

An initial exploratory analysis conducted at Duke University suggests that this may be the case. When asked to describe a time in the past in which they made inaccurate self-control predictions, all 192 of the respondents in a recent survey were able to provide rich descriptions of experiences in which they made self-control predictions in response to a temptation that differed from their realized behaviors. That respondents were able to detail instances of self-control forecasting inaccuracies with such rich description and only minimal prompting suggests that such prediction inaccuracies are not unusual to the average person. Extending upon this conclusion, the categories of temptations from the responses were very diverse, with responses that included food, sex, exercise, and relaxation, among others. This diversity suggests that these inaccuracies may characterize self-control predictions in general and not just those associated with a specific type of temptation. Additionally, though they were permitted to respond about a temptation that occurred within the past month, all participants detailed temptations that occurred within the past week, providing further evidence that these prediction inaccuracies are fairly common occurrences. Taken together, these results suggest that inaccurate self-control predictions are not unheard of in a general sample and may actually be commonplace occurrences.

Although self-control forecasting research is still in an early stage, these initial exploratory results are promising. It appears as though forecasts of future self-control abilities are not always accurate and that these inaccuracies are not infrequent occurrences. However, further studies are needed in order to determine the magnitude and frequency of this effect. In the meantime, many of us can at least be reassured that we are not alone in our self-control prediction inaccuracies, lofty self-improvement goals be damned.


Andrew hails from Charlotte, NC, where he lived before shuffling slightly north to receive a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University. At Duke, he completed research investigating social psychological phenomena related to the self and self-regulation. He is currently a graduate student in the PhD program in social psychology at Northwestern University. His research focuses on the social side of self-regulatory functioning, as well as how self-implemented goals and mental ideations about identity affect one’s ability to achieve appropriate self-regulatory control. Outside of the lab, Andrew enjoys going on runs in the sweltering southern heat and cooking dishes that have been described by critics as “edible.”


1-Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16 (6), 351-355.
2-Bueller, R., & McFarland, C. (2001). Intensity bias in affective forecasting: The role of temporal focus. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1480-1493.
3-Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
4-Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Perosnality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.

social psych snapshot: week of 10/5/15

This week, Hannah provides the research highlights of early fall 2015!

You may already know about the cognitive consequences of Google but this article explores some social consequences of Google and technology more broadly.

Promising lab research suggests that comedy may be an effective means of coping with emotional distress.

New research conceptually replicates an old finding – that taking acetaminophen (Tylenol) can blunt negative emotions – and extends it, suggesting that acetaminophen may blunt strong positive and negative emotions alike.

Hm… I won’t be trying this unusual method of enhancing self-control based on the theory of inhibitory spillover: that trying to control your behavior in one domain might help you control your behavior in another.

Hannah graduated with a degree in Psychology from Reed College, and worked in educational research and meta-analysis as a lab manager at Duke University before entering the Social Psychology PhD program in 2014. Her research focuses on social psychological processes at work in educational contexts.

Minority Influence: Why Black Lives Matter Matters


Image from Socially Urban

Minorities are a paradoxical thing. Even though they are composed of a small amount of people, they can have incredible influence. Many major advancements and legal movements have been spear-headed by minorities, ranging from the followers of Copernicus spreading the word of heliocentrism, to teetotalers advocating for alcohol prohibition, and ultimately amending the constitution, in the U.S.. Few great achievements come without challenge, and equal treatment for black citizens under the law appears to be one of those things. We know from history that small groups of people can accomplish big things, which is why it’s important to keep the Black Lives Matter movement alive for change to occur in penal and legal overreach.

For decades, social psychologists have studied minority influence, which, as you may have guessed, is the capacity for a small group of people with an unpopular opinion to change beliefs.1,2 In any given social issue, the dominant group, or those in power, have the most social influence over the target population, the people the group is hoping to influence. But minority groups gain traction by challenging the dominant group, presenting themselves as innovative alternatives to the status quo.3 Research has largely found that opinion change caused by the majority is often temporary and public, whereas opinion changes caused by the minority are indirect and persistent.4,5,6 Majorities inspire public conformity, but minorities foster true attitude change. Unfortunately, privately held opinions don’t help to propel minority movements, but they may be a better reflection of where someone will allocate his or her voting power, alone in a cubicle in an elementary school gym.

In addition to being influential, people who are in minority groups are liked by others. One study planted minority influencers in teams over the course of a 10 week study, and found that teams with members that advocated for the minority position improved their divergent thinking and came up with more original products than control groups without a minority influencer.7 Minority influencers were also given higher ratings by peers, indicating that group members valued the minority contributions.7 Since we know that groupthink can lead to terrible decision-making, it is not that surprising that team members would value teammates who help to point out potential pitfalls. However, it is surprising that those minority members were better liked than people who shared the majority opinion, giving us hope that social change doesn’t have to equal social conflict.

Interrupting Bernie Sanders’ Seattle campaign event earlier this month may have been controversial, but it has helped to keep the Black Lives Matter movement in the news. Only once there is enough tension will the dominant group be forced to answer to the movement, and Black Lives Matter is obviously fueled by passionate, young people who are willing to be persistent in changing attitudes. Research does indicate that Black Lives Matter may benefit from a more centralized operating structure, as consistency of the message of the group, as well as the confidence with which attempts are made to convey the message, are important factors for influencing majority members.8

Individually, we can all do our part to open our minds and hearts to the message of minority movements, and allow ourselves to be guided by the evidence at hand over political dogma. The Black Lives Matter movement has already had an incredible influence on the political climate of the 2016 election. As long as they continue to challenge the status quo with consistency and credibility, attitude change is all but inevitable.

  1. Maass, A., & Clark, R. D. (1984). Hidden impact of minorities: Fifteen years of minority influence research. Psychological Bulletin, 95(3), 428.
  1. Moscovici, S., & Lage, E. (1976). Studies in social influence III: Majority versus minority influence in a group. European Journal of Social Psychology, 6(2), 149-174.
  1. Mugny, G., & Pérez, J. A. (1991). The social psychology of minority influence. Cambridge University Press.
  1. Maass, A., & Clark, R. D. (1983). Internalization versus compliance: Differential processes underlying minority influence and conformity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 13(3), 197-215.
  1. Nemeth, C. J. (1986). Differential contributions of majority and minority influence. Psychological review, 93(1), 23.
  1. Moscovici, S., & Personnaz, B. (1980). Studies in social influence: V. Minority influence and conversion behavior in a perceptual task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(3), 270-282.
  1. Dyne, L., & Saavedra, R. (1996). A naturalistic minority influence experiment: Effects on divergent thinking, conflict and originality in work‐groups. British Journal of Social Psychology, 35(1), 151-167.
  1. Nemeth, C., & Wachtler, J. (1974). Creating the perceptions of consistency and confidence: A necessary condition for minority influence. Sociometry, 529-540.

Getting ish done: Setting and achieving realistic goals

Summer is a time when people set new goals for themselves. It means more time for exercising, gardening, catching up with friends, or organizing your place. It could also mean traveling, more work, or any combination of these activities. But setting goals does not guarantee success of goals…

Goals Pie Chart
Why is it easier to achieve some goals than others? Aside from the obvious—some goals are genuinely more difficult to achieve, like buying a home compared to earning a free coffee after purchasing 12 coffees prior—other factors may be influencing your success. Using goal research, the following questions serve as a primer to increase your likelihood of successful goal pursuit.
1. How is the goal defined? The more concretely a goal is defined, the easier it is to measure progress toward goal achievement. For example, let’s imagine that someone has a goal to eat healthier. An admirable and respectable goal, indeed, but what does eating healthier mean to this person? What would success for this goal look like? The more specifically the goal is defined, the easier it is to track progress toward goal achievement. Maybe eating healthier means eating a banana every day. Maybe it means limiting dessert to twice a week. Regardless of the form they take, setting tangible markers of progress increases your likelihood of success [1].

2. Do you think you can do it? Setting realistic goals is not new advice, but it bears repeating. Your expectations of goal achievement influence your progress toward and your commitment to your goal. If you expect yourself to crash and burn, then you probably will. Many of us have experienced this firsthand. If you have a goal of reducing social media usage, but you doubt that you can break up with Facebook, then readjusting your goal to account for your own preferences is recommended. Sometimes this translates into setting smaller and manageable goals first, and then working up to a greater, and ultimately desired, end goal. Maybe you strive to reduce your Facebook usage gradually, or you eliminate Twitter or Tumblr first, for example.

3. How close are you to achieving this goal? Beginning a new goal versus being near goal completion typically requires different strategies. People often adjust their goal pursuit strategies without realizing it depending on the particular stage of goal pursuit. For example, some research suggests that people exaggerate any progress made in the beginning of pursuit to make success seem more attainable and downplay progress toward the end when close to goal completion to highlight the need for continued effort [2]. Other work suggests that perceiving progress toward a goal (i.e., believing that you’re closer to goal completion) leads to relaxed pursuit of the goal [3], also known as coasting. Coasting is when people don’t feel the need to work as hard toward the goal, because they’re doing just fine [4]. Both of these processes occur at different times depending on the type of goal you have (see questions 1 and 4).

4. Does this goal require maintenance? Some goals are obviously completed once you achieve them. Earning a degree, for example. While achieving this goal may have required maintaining certain behaviors over an extended period, goal achievement is obvious and clear-cut: you have your degree. Not surprisingly, many goals are not like this. Health goals are a prototypical maintenance goal. They’re never truly completed. Even if an initial first part has been achieved, such as reaching a goal weight, the maintenance phase will likely continue indefinitely, which is why continued success is difficult without additional reinforcements (to be discussed in a later post!). Maintenance goals often require rewards, consistent checking in with yourself about your progress, and, sometimes, flexibility regarding the means to goal achievement.

Goals are complicated. Rarely, if ever, do people pursue a single goal at any time [5]. We are continuously juggling and re-prioritizing our goals, big and small, every day of our lives. Doing so is undoubtedly hard work, and these questions certainly do not capture every element of goal pursuit. However, if you’re struggling to finish something or you need a refresher, ask yourself the questions above. They’re a good place to start.

1 – Kivetz, R., Urminsky, O., & Zheng, Y. (2006). The goal-gradient hypothesis resurrected: Purchase acceleration, illusionary goal progress, and customer retention. Journal of Marketing Research, 43, 39-58.
2 – Huang, S. C., Zhang, Y., & Broniarczyk, S. M. (2012). So near and yet so far: The mental representation of goal progress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 225-241.
3 – Fishbach, A., & Dhar, R. (2005). Goals as excuses or guides: The liberating effect of perceived goal progress on choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 32, 370-377.
4 – Carver, C.S. & Scheier, M.F. (2011). Self-regulation of action and affect. In K.D. Vohs & R.F. Baumeister (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (2nd ed.) (3-21). New York: Guilford Press.
5 – Kruglanski, A. W., Shah, J. Y., Fishbach, A., Friedman, R., Chun, W. Y., & Sleeth-Keppler, D. (2002). A theory of goal systems. Advances in experimental social psychology, 34, 331-378.

Will mandatory calorie labeling change food behavior?

Heads up! The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently finalized two rulings, effective December 1, 2015, regarding calorie and nutrition labeling for food items sold in vending machines and restaurants.

Food Labeling; Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines*:

 “The declaration of accurate and clear calorie information for food sold from vending machines will make calorie information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.”

 Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail

Food Establishments*:

Providing accurate, clear, and consistent nutrition information, including the calorie content of foods, in restaurants and similar retail food establishments will make such nutrition information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.”

Photo by Flickr user Steve W

Typical American vending machine circa 2006

Although long overdue and incredibly welcome, the statute as written implies that information is not just necessary but a sufficient means of healthier eating. The information enables the consumer to make decisions with the optimism that knowledge will be the impetus to a healthier lifestyle. The FDA is right that knowledge and information are essential to healthier eating, but assuming that consumers will make informed and healthful dietary choices simply because the options are there is wishful thinking. People know the “right” thing to do or eat a lot of the time, but simply knowing doesn’t translate into doing—intention is also an important element, among other factors like perceived control over behavior and past behavior1.

I’m not criticizing the FDA for not doing more nor am I dismissing the effort put forth by health advocates who worked for these rulings for decades. These mandates represent progress, but they are not sufficient. Labeling and providing calorie totals is hardly enough to curb calorie intake. In a 2009 study that looked at fast-food choices of people** in New York after the introduction of a menu-labeling mandate, researchers found no difference in calories purchased compared to a control group in a city where no menu-labeling mandate existed. This finding was despite the fact that nearly 30% of participants indicated that the calorie labels influenced their decisions2. Awareness doesn’t automatically translate into action.

In fact, sometimes knowing the healthiest option on the menu is enough to make someone choose the least healthy option. Though the decision seems counterintuitive, the behavior exists, and it’s called vicarious goal fulfillment3. Basically, what that means is that people see the salad item on the menu and its calorie total, and it reminds them of the salad they had last week or the one that they promise they’ll eat tomorrow. Feeling justified, people can then order the bacon cheeseburger. It sounds completely counter-intuitive, but the evidence exists.

Let’s take a look at some of the other factors at play when making food decisions in addition to calorie information:

Living with the rule of thumb “everything in moderation:” We all know this mantra. Nutritionists and laypeople alike have endorsed it as an effective means of weight management, but the amount that constitutes moderation is ambiguous, which allows people to interpret it as they see fit. Does moderation mean eating a single cookie or just one sleeve of cookies in a package? For most people, moderation depends on the amount they typically eat. People tend to interpret information in a self-serving way, so those who do eat an entire sleeve of cookies may genuinely believe the amount is moderate, particularly if the alternative is to eat the entire package. In fact, research I collaborated on found that people considered moderation to be slightly more than what they typically ate4. In other words, everyone thought that they ate in moderation, but the definition of moderation varied dramatically by person.

These findings suggest that visible calorie or nutrition information won’t necessarily alter the food people choose when ordering or at a vending machine. Instead, people are more likely to order the same food and then shift their definition of moderation to match what they ate.

Eating with others: An abundance of evidence finds that eating with other people influences everything from what we eat to how much5. Generally, people eat more when they eat with other people unless the others are strangers6. When eating companions are unknown or merely acquaintances, people are much more likely to limit how much they eat so as not to seem sloppy or greedy or any of the other labels that are placed on people who eat “a lot.” Think about a first date you had that involved dinner. What did you order? Did you decide not to order something in particular because of what it might signify to your date? Did you eat more carefully than usual? Maybe you ate less than you usually do. Eating with people you do know may impose a separate set of social pressures to keep up with the group, whether that means ordering dessert for everyone to split or getting a salad with the dressing on the side so you aren’t the odd person out.

Even the gender and appearance of people who are around us in our eating environment can influence the food we choose7. For example, people who order food after a thin person who has ordered a lot of food are more likely to increase the amount they eat, too. The reasoning seems to be that if it’s okay for a thin person to eat that much, then I can, too.  Much of this behavior doesn’t occur at the level of conscious awareness; rather, it’s a quick decision we make automatically without necessarily realizing the aspects that factored into it.

I should note that, although these trends apply across all genders in the United States (where the majority of the research reported here has been conducted), social norms differ for men and women regarding how they should eat. Whereas men may feel pressured to eat more meat to be masculine, women may feel that they must eat less or something “light” so they don’t seem too unfeminine8.

Does this salad make me look feminine?

Does this salad make me look feminine?

All of these factors that you may or may not have been aware of influence your eating patterns,  often above and beyond objective information like calorie labels. In other words, your eating  companions are much more likely to influence your decision on their own or in combination  with the calorie information than the calorie info by itself.

For more information on how eating with others is different from eating alone, keep an eye out  for our upcoming mini-series on social eating.

 Licensing: That feeling of deservingness you have when you worked your butt off earlier in  the day or decided not to have dessert after lunch, for example, that makes you feel entitled to a treat. In simplest terms, licensing is self-justified indulging of (often unhealthy) foods for a variety of reasons, including feeling that you deserve it, availability of the food, intentions to make up for the indulgence later, curiosity about the food, feeling that it’s an exception to what you usually eat, and irresistibility of the food9. See our Justifying Indulgence on Thanksgiving post for more details. In a licensing situation, calorie information is likely to be less important than if someone had not previously decided to indulge.

Another possibility in a licensing situation with visible nutrition information is that the food item that people plan to indulge in may not contain as many calories as people expected, which may lead them to order additional calories at that time or later that day. Maybe you weren’t planning to order fries with your burger, but now that you know the burger only has 300 calories, all bets are off.


These are just a few of the factors at play when people make decisions about what and how much to eat. Most of these influences will occur regardless of whether calorie or nutrition information is available. Furthermore, the very people who may be put off by the calorie amounts likely weren’t eating much of that food anyway. At the other extreme is the group of people who will eat whatever they want, regardless of the calorie amounts. A middle group of consumers exists, however, that we haven’t yet discussed. That group is composed of people who generally try to watch what they eat but can’t be bothered too much by it. And this middle group might be bigger than the other two. Maybe it’s the category you fall into. That group may make food decisions for other groups that wouldn’t change their patterns, like a mother or father deciding for a child. That middle group might also be people who have the intention to eat better, but McDonald’s is the only restaurant in their town. For this middle group, visible calorie and nutrition information may start to speak louder than the other factors. Visible calorie and nutrition information may eventually make its way into people’s working knowledge of nutrition, and knowledge is an initial necessary step to intentional behavior change.

Read more about the statutes here. If you’re interested in many of the other aspects of food decisions, check out Brian Wansink’s work here.

* Only vendors and companies operating at least 20 vending machines/stores are required to follow this new mandate.

** This study focused on low-income people, who may have the additional goal beyond health of getting the most calories for the least amount of money. Unfortunately, these two goals are often at odds with each other.

1 Ajzen. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

2 Elbel, Kersh, Brescoll, & Dixon. (2009). Calorie labeling and food choices: A first look at the effects on low-income people in New York City. Health Affairs.

3 Wilcox, Vallen, Block, & Fitzsimons. (2009). Vicarious goal fulfillment: When the mere presence of a healthy option leads to an ironically indulgent decision. Journal of Consumer Research.

4 vanDellen, Isherwood, & Delose. (2014). Everything in moderation? Moderation messages are ineffective for healthy eating. Unpublished manuscript.

5,6 Herman, Roth, & Polivy. (2003). Effects of the presence of others on food intake: A normative interpretation. Psychological Bulletin.

7 McFerran, Dahl, Fitzsimons, & Morales. (2010). I’ll have what she’s having: Effects of social influence and body type on the food choice of others. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

8 Bublitz, Peracchio, & Block. (2010). Why did I eat that? Perspectives on food decision making and dietary restraint. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

9 Taylor, Webb, & Sheeran. (2013). ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action. British Journal of Social Psychology.

Obesity and public health campaigns: Finding the Holy Grail

Obesity is a disease. It has been since June 2013, at least according to the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA formally recognized obesity as a disease with the intention that such a classification would prompt additional funding for obesity research. However, a set of studies published in Psychological Science1 earlier this year suggests that designating obesity as a disease without considering the psychological consequences has a variety of positive and negative implications for obese and average-weight individuals.

Across a set of three studies where more than 50% of the 700+ participants were classified as overweight or obese according to the Body Mass Index (BMI), psychology researchers Crystal Hoyt, Jeni Burnette, and Lisa Auster-Gussman found that obese individuals reported significant decreases in weight concern and body dissatisfaction when they received the message that obesity was a disease, whereas average weight individuals demonstrated no such pattern when exposed to the same message. At first glance, this finding suggests that the “obesity as a disease” model is effective at increasing body satisfaction and, perhaps, decreasing internalized stigma.

Choose Health LA County ad campaign

Example of weight management-focused (incremental mindset) public health strategy

At a recent talk I attended, Dr. Burnette discussed these findings as well as related findings from some more recent studies about the relationship between the obesity as disease message and an entity mindset. An entity mindset is the belief that an ability or characteristic, such as intelligence or weight, is fixed and not malleable as a result of effort or behavior change2,3. Burnette suggested that believing obesity is a disease implies that weight is static, that it’s not people’s lack of willpower or behavior making them obese, but rather, their genes and physiologies. This notion seems to decrease anti-fat prejudice and blame placed on obese individuals4. This approach seems promising: reducing stigma and blame, as well as increasing the likelihood of research funding.

There’s a catch, of course. In addition to the decreased weight concern and body dissatisfaction, obese individuals who saw the disease message were also more likely to make hypothetical unhealthy food choices, unlike average weight individuals or obese individuals exposed to the weight-management control. The researchers suggest that these food choices may be a downstream consequence of the disease label and the entity mindset it may induce. That is, if obesity indicates a physiological malfunction, thus making weight control efforts ineffective, why bother trying? The very message that decreases blame seems to reduce motivation to manage weight, too.

The belief that weight loss efforts are ineffective for obese individuals is not completely implausible. Food researcher Traci Mann and fellow obesity researchers have found that long-term weight loss for obese folks is the exception, not the norm. Receiving the message that obesity is a disease and fixed may be affirming to an obese person who was previously told that weight loss attempts were a personal failing. Regardless, it could be argued that the positive impact of affirmation and acceptance is diminished if it’s accompanied by regular unhealthy food choices.

In contrast, obese participants who were shown the control message of standard weight management strategies demonstrated a different pattern. Their concern for their weight did not decrease, but nor did they subsequently choose higher-calorie, unhealthy foods. The implication, which the researchers mention, is that some level of mild body dissatisfaction may be motivating to eat healthier foods and to be more active. But these findings present something of a double-edged sword, as Dr. Burnette mentioned at her recent talk.

The weight management (control) message may have induced an incremental mindset of weight, the alternative to an entity mindset about weight. An incremental mindset affords people more agency by implying that weight can be altered, presumably through behavior change. Accompanying empowerment, however, is the shift in blame away from an obese person’s genes and onto them and their behavior. As Burnette said, promoting either mindset to obese and non-obese individuals alike can have negative effects.

So, what’s a public health professional to do, particularly when obesity has already been officially labeled a disease? It’s exactly that sort of question that Burnette and her collaborators would like to pursue in future research. Specifically, how should public health messages be structured to motivate and promote an incremental mindset for obese individuals without the body image costs and blame? No obvious or simple answers exist yet. Burnette says that the answer to that question would be “the Holy Grail.”

Anyone out there come across research that might answer this or have a suggestion? Post it in the comments!



1Hoyt, C.L., Burnette, J.L., & Auster-Gussman, L. (2014). “Obesity is a disease”: Examining the self-regulatory impact of this public-health message. Psychological Science, 25, 997-1002.

2 Dweck, C.S., Chiu, C.Y., & Hong, Y.Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267-285.

3 Burnette, J.L., O’Boyle, E., VanEpps, E.M., Pollack, J.M., & Finkel, E.J. (2013). Mindsets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 655-701.

4Monterosso, J., Royzman, E.B., & Schwartz, B. (2005). Explaining away responsibility: Effects of scientific explanation on perceived culpability. Ethics & Behavior, 15, 139-158.


Mental Health Stigma, or, Why We Should Leave Amanda Alone

Image from NY Daily News

Image from NY Daily News

The inevitable has happened: Amanda Bynes has been put under a 72-hour psychiatric hold in LA. Her parents are seeking conservatorship of her affairs after over a year of bizarre behavior, most recently in the form of some severe Twitter allegations* about her father abusing her as a child, and a tweet recanting her statement and blaming it on a microchip her father had implanted in her brain. This is a familiar story. One can easily remember Britney Spears going through similar issues, attacking paparazzi with an umbrella and famously shaving her head. Or Lindsay Lohan, landing in court case after court case, and suffering from substance abuse. But it’s all too easy to forget that these celebrities are people, and they are going through (or have gone through) some mental health issues. And so have a lot of people.

Mental health diagnoses can be things like phobias, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2012 approximately 4.1% of US adults were suffering, or had suffered, with a serious mental illness within the last year. That might sound small, but that only accounts for a serious mental health diagnosis. The same year approximately 18.6% of US adults had suffered from mental illness in general. That’s almost 1 in 5! So, in reality, what Bynes is going through is a common experience, and she doesn’t deserve increased scrutiny about her mental health state just because she’s been in the public eye since she was seven.* * Let’s make like Britney and leave Amanda alone.

There’s a well-known relationship between stress and mental disorders. Obviously, the attention a celebrity receives is bound to be stressful, but sources of stress can range from your job to childhood abuse. Some illnesses even appear to be more common in populations of people who experienced some type of extreme or chronic stress (1,2). Working full time and juggling school from a young age could definitely act as a source of stress, which may help to explain the incidence of mental disorder in people who were child stars (and, similarly, in impoverished populations; 3). Clinicians believe that something called the gene by environment interaction (G x E) plays a large role in mental illness (4,5). Basically, it means that even if you have some sort of hereditary vulnerability to a mental illness, it may take environmental stressors to actually end up developing the disorder. Illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be especially impacted by environmental factors. Soldiers deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom had a PTSD prevalence rate of 19.3% (6). Mental illness may ultimately be something that is brought out in us by our circumstances, rather than something that we “have.”

Regardless of how people come to be diagnosed with a mental disorder we know that mental illnesses are just as debilitating as physical ones. People living with mental illness may suffer from symptoms ranging from anhedonia and rumination, to things like delusions and suicidal thoughts. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90% of the people who commit suicide have received a mental health diagnosis. One of the reasons may be the amount of stigma that surrounds mental illness. Stigma can reduce self-esteem and opportunities to be social, and increase stereotyping and prejudice (7). There is also evidence that populations that endure prejudice are more likely to develop a mental illness, illustrating the complexity of the G x E interaction (8, 9, 10).

So let’s give Bynes’ bizarre behavior a pass. If she’d been diagnosed with cancer, people would empathize with her and leave her alone instead of hounding her and putting her in the spotlight. Mental illness is just as serious as any illness a person can have, and it’s past time we learned to see people beyond their maladies, regardless.

*Anyone who knows me well will know how much it pained me to write the phrase “severe Twitter allegations.”

**Ok, ok, she was 8 in this one. Sue me. I didn’t have the energy to deep Google it. I also totally had those Barbie™ hair extensions.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, there is help. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, , or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).


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  1. Mays, V. M., & Cochran, S. D. (2001). Mental health correlates of perceived discrimination among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 91(11), 1869-1876.
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