Justifying indulgence on Thanksgiving

Louis CK’s take on Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving! That time of year when you feel that your indulgence is somewhat justified and the guilt for everything you ate is mitigated by the tradition of the holiday. If I just described you, don’t be alarmed. You are certainly not alone. Thanksgiving is a prime day for rationalizing indulgences for people who may otherwise feel guilty about blowing their diet. Recent research finds that people typically rely on six different explanations to justify eating (a lot of) unhealthy foods1, all of which are relevant to Thanksgiving dinner:

  1. Availability of unhealthy food: Unhealthy foods abound and are difficult to avoid. Those green beans just pale in comparison to the mashed potatoes.
  2. Intentions to compensate for the unhealthy eating in the near future: You make firm plans to exercise regularly for the next week and to limit your consumption of leftovers.
  3. Indulgence as an exception to the norm: Thanksgiving is just one day a year, after all. You never eat pumpkin pie or dessert, for that matter. And when was the last time you had your uncle’s stuffing?
  4. Feeling deserving of the unhealthy food: Related to all of the above and then some. You have been eating healthy foods consistently lately, and you just got a promotion at work. Plus, having to interact with some of your extended family makes you feel deserving of any prize.
  5. Curiosity-compelled indulgence: I don’t know exactly what this cookie is, but it looks and smells delicious. I have to try it!
  6. Irresistibility of the foods: Who can turn down sweet potato casserole? Everything smells fantastic!

Honestly, indulging occasionally shouldn’t have to be guilt-inducing. Thanksgiving is a special occasion involving atypical foods and eating companions who may live far away. The act of eating is social and pleasurable and should be enjoyed. However, if you’re someone who finds that the holidays are a more permanent setback for your health goal, you are not doomed. Strategies exist for maintaining your health goals and still enjoying (yes!) your Thanksgiving meal. Check out this Slate article for some tips by Brian Wansink, an expert food researcher, on how to manage your eating.

Did the researchers miss any justifications? What have you noticed at previous Thanksgiving meals?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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

Mental shortcuts and portion control

Flickr user eddie welker

Standard cheesy nacho connectedness (Image courtesy of flickr user Eddie Welker)

Have you ever picked up a chip from a plate of nachos only to find that it was stuck to several others, creating one large nacho mass of cheesy goodness? Or maybe it happened with cookies that had been baked together. Regardless of the specific food, how many times have you looked at that larger-than-intended portion in your hand and shrugged while thinking, it’s still just one nacho (or cookie or whatever). If so, you are not alone!

People are constantly inundated with a multitude of stimuli from their environments, particularly when making decisions about eating. To simplify things a bit, people rely on heuristics (or mental shortcuts) to keep them from becoming overwhelmed by the number of decisions, such as how many cookies to eat, what type of cookies, when do I want them, and so on.

The unit bias heuristic is the tendency to sense that a single entity is the appropriate amount of food to eat, regardless of how big that entity is (1). In other words, eating a cookie, no matter how big that cookie is, feels acceptable and not guilt-inducing to most people, despite the fact that the cookie size may actually be comparable to three cookies.

Naturally, people vary in how frequently they rely on unit bias and also in the size of the typical unit used. For example, one large cookie or a full package of cookies can both be considered to be a single unit depending on the person or the circumstance. Unit bias doesn’t become particularly problematic to people’s health unless they are regularly consuming extra-large portions as one unit, such as a full bag of chips or an entire box of cereal.* In these cases, people may need external support, sometimes called segmentation cues (2), to provide indicators to stop eating. Segmentation cues are also often called “portion control.” For example, 100-calorie snack packs act as a cue to limit your intake of a particular food item.

To learn more about unit bias and segmentation cues, check out the papers below, or email us at Socialpsyq@gmail.com.


(1) Geier, A.B., Rozin, P., & Doros, G. (2006). Unit bias: A new heuristic that helps explain the effect of portion size on food intake. Psychological Science, 17, 521-525.

(2) Geier, A.B., Wansink, B., & Rozin, P. (2012). Red potato chips: Segmentation cues can substantially decrease food intake. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027221



* Of course, these portions don’t apply to everyone. If someone is a high performance athlete, for example, then their calorie intake will look very different from the average person.