Calling All Perfectionists!

The-Perfectionist-Scale-Perfectionist Guide to Results Blog The-Perfectionists-Guide-to-Results-Blog

 

 

 

 

 

Look familiar? Are these the standards you use to assess your success? If so, you may be on your way to psychological burnout. A new meta-analysis of 43 studies published by Personality and Social Psychology Review found that some aspects of perfectionism can lead to negative psychological outcomes. Now, if you are a recovering perfectionist, you might be thinking,

Duh gif

“I didn’t need a meta-analysis to tell me that!”

 

I’m with you. I, too, have struggled with perfectionism and, subsequently, feeling burned out and exhausted. But this meta-analysis is important for several reasons. First, not only does it present empirical evidence to support people’s personal experiences and anecdotes, but it also condenses and provides a robust summary—an analysis, if you will—of the findings from 43 studies, all while taking into account additional factors, such as the domain (e.g., school, work, sports). In other words, solid findings that you are not imagining things and more details to explain what you might be experiencing. Let’s face it: your perfectionism is probably getting you down.

Researchers Hill and Curran use the following definition of perfectionism and burnout:

  • Perfectionism: multidimensional tendency to have exceedingly high standards and to be extremely self-critical1
    • Typically expressed through strivings, the setting of high personal standards and an aim for perfection, and concerns, or a fear of making mistakes and judging oneself harshly for them (See above images)
  • Burnout: a stress-induced psychosocial syndrome associated with motivational, performance, and psychological deficits2
    • Symptoms: emotional exhaustion, cynical attitude, perceived decreases in personal accomplishments and efficacy2
    • May resemble something like the images below

 

 

The primary finding indicates that perfectionism and burnout are positively correlated. That is, the more perfectionism a person displays, the higher rates of burnout they’re likely to experience, and this was true especially in the work domain (we’ll discuss that later). However, aspects of perfectionism are not equally at fault. Perfectionistic concerns, rather than perfectionistic strivings, accounted for most of the correlation with burnout.  In other words, and unsurprisingly, the tendency to be extremely self-critical and to judge oneself harshly are more harmful than setting and striving for high personal standards. In fact, perfectionistic strivings may provide a small buffer against the negativity associated with negative self-evaluation, particularly in school/education or sports.

The work domain was unique in its findings. For people dealing with burnout at work, strivings were found to be less effective at buffering against components of perfectionistic concerns, like cynicism and exhaustion. The researchers suggest that people may feel less in control at work than in school or sports given that a “perfect” work performance is typically more ambiguous. This finding deserves particular attention from ambitious high school or college graduates who are entering the workforce and potentially transitioning to a job with less tangible performance feedback.

Burnout is not inevitable, even if you identify as a perfectionist. Factors such as resilience, ability to cope with stress, and social support can all provide protection against burnout and its associated symptoms.2 So can learning to say no—over-commitment may also contribute to psychological distress.

Keep in mind that this meta-analysis describes correlational relationships. Perfectionism does not cause burnout but, rather, is closely associated with it and certainly a contributing factor. If you’d like to learn more specifics about this particular meta-analysis, check out the references below. Let’s just ignore the irony of me wanting to perfect this post before publishing it.


1-Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449-468.

2-Hill, A.P. & Curran, T. (2015). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1-20.

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Self-Control and Eating: Which counts more, health or taste?

Could the time it takes you to process taste- and health-related characteristics of food predict the final food decision you’ll make? A study recently published in the journal Psychological Science1 would suggest so. The study examined the hypothetical food decisions of 28 male and female undergraduates using a mouse tracking task, which captured both the time and trajectory of participants’ decisions. See image below of the task and sample trajectory results.

FoodChoice_Mouse track

food choice_caption Participants low in dietary self-control processed tastiness of a food significantly faster than healthiness of a food before making a final food decision. The researchers suggest that the earlier a factor like taste is processed while making a decision, the more heavily weighted that factor will be in someone’s final decision. Health-related attributes (e.g. calories), on the other hand, are delayed in the decision-making process and won’t be as strongly considered in the decision-making process. For example, someone low in dietary self-control who has a weak spot for gooey fudge brownies will immediately think about how delicious and sweet the brownies will be rather than their relative unhealthiness, and this deliciousness factor will be the strongest and loudest factor when that person decides whether to eat the brownies. Knowing this, no one is surprised when the brownies win the majority of the time.

In contrast, participants high in self-control processed tastiness and healthiness at approximately the same time, making both attributes relatively balanced when making a food decision, which may explain why those high in dietary self-control are more often successful when trying to exert self-control in a food situation.

Based on these findings, the researchers suggest the following implications:

  1. Delaying a food decision, even by a small waiting period, may be enough time to allow health factors to influence a final decision more strongly
  2. Interventions that can increase speed with which health information is processed may improve dietary self-control.
  3. Marketing strategies that display health attributes more prominently may promote faster processing of health attributes

To read the original article, check out the citation below.


1- Sullivan, N., Hutcherson, C., Harris, A., & Rangel, A. (2014). Dietary self-control is related to the speed with which attributes of healthfulness and tastiness are processed. Psychological Science. Advance online publication. 1-13. doi: 10.1177/0956797614559543

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.

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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.

 

Should kids avoid the cereal aisle for their health?

cerealboxpsychology01

Image courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab

Is it just me, or is the cereal aisle much more complicated and sinister compared to when we were kids? Every time I walk down that aisle, my frustration spikes. The choices, so many choices! Chocolate Krave. Cap’n Crunch. Chocolate Cheerios. Frosted Flakes. Even Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has a cereal now, featuring chocolate bits that you can eat for breakfast. That last part is meant to pull in the kids, and it works. Those kids will nag their parents to buy it who will eventually give in[i] because, oh, they’re frustrated, too. Maybe even more than I am.

I’m not frustrated because of the mere existence of so many options necessarily. Rather, it’s the quality of the options that is concerning. Are any of these cereals actually healthy enough that children should be consuming them regularly? Not usually. A recent study on cereal quality found that cereal brands marketed to children had 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium than cereals marketed to adults.[ii] Most of these cereals also feature spokes-characters, like the silly rabbit from Trix, Cap’n Crunch, or Tony the Tiger, which are familiar to children and increase the appeal of the cereal brand. And let’s not forget that the combined rate of obese and overweight children in this country is still holding strong at 17%.[iii] That’s nearly 13 million kids.

See what I mean about sinister? Now, brand marketing is not inherently negative, but when marketing of unhealthy foods is targeted toward children, then cereal companies like Kellogg and General Mills take a step into the danger zone. Sugary cereals are perhaps even more insidious than other snack foods because they are junk foods disguised as a friendly breakfast.

In-store marketing strategies take it one step further. Cereal companies pay top dollar to get an ideal shelf location that will appeal to children[iv]. In a recent study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers found that cereal brands marketed to children were more likely to be at a child’s eye level and to contain spokes-characters whose gazes angled downward at approximately the height of an average child[v]. In contrast, cereals marketed primarily to adults featuring spokes-characters (think Wheaties) had level gazes. And this seemingly subtle shift in height and gaze is effective. People in the study reported a strong preference for the cereal that featured a spokes-character that made eye contact. By placing their cereals on the middle or bottom shelf, then, companies are ensuring that children will make eye contact with spokes-characters and feel connected and loyal to that brand.

This type of marketing exploits and manipulates children. Cereal companies should be held more accountable. In the past few years and in recent months, especially, there has been a serious push to create stricter regulations for companies that market primarily to children. Based on the findings of Musicus and colleagues, just one of many similar studies, these regulations can’t come soon enough. The issue of obesity is still current. People may be tired of hearing about it, and obesity rates may have stabilized in several states[vi], but that doesn’t mean that it’s gone away.

But even if we take obesity out of the equation, even if we recognize that not all children have the same risk factors for becoming obese, it doesn’t mean that kids should be regularly consuming unhealthy sugary food. Parents want to protect their children in every way they can, and they’re stretched to their limits as is. Cereal companies, and all other food companies for that matter, should be held to stricter regulations. Some marketing standards have been successfulvii, but more needs to be done. Regulations should stretch beyond nutrition and include specific marketing techniques, such as shelf placement and use of spokes-characters. We shouldn’t make the cereal aisle another battleground where parents need to be on the front lines.

Posted by Jen

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If you’re interested in this topic and would like to learn more, check out the links below.

Center for Science in the Public Interest: Food Marketing Workgroup

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Healthy Eating Research

Salud Today

Eyes in the aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch looking down at my child? (abstract)

[i],vii A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents — Follow-Up Report. See http://www.ftc.gov/reports/review-food-marketing-children-adolescents-follow-report .

[ii] Harris, J. L., & Graff, S. K. (2012). Protecting young people from junk food advertising: Implications of psychological research for First Amendment law. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 214-222.

[iii] http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

[iv] Wilkie, W.L., Desrochers, D.M., & Gundlach, G.T. (2002). Marketing research and public policy: The case of slotting fees. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 21, 275-288.

[v] Musicus, A., Tal, A., & Wansink, B. (2014). Eyes in the aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch looking down at my child? Environment and Behavior, 0013916514528793.

[vi] http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-american-obesity-crisis-stabilizing-20140904-story.html.