Monday, June 3, 2013

Willpower, Self-Regulation, and One NYU Professor's War on "Fatties"

You've locked yourself in your apartment, finally beginning to tackle the thing grad students dread, the stuff of nightmares, the fodder for PhD comics, the event grad schools create support groups about: your dissertation. But, gosh, that leftover piece of chocolate cake looks so tasty. Well, it will only take a minute to eat. At least, that's how I eat chocolate cake.

Okay, now that that's gone, time to get back to this dissertation thingy. Oh, but I have chips. And cheese. Nachos? Brilliant.

What was I doing? Oh yeah, dissertation. Oh, but I'm still hungry. Better get some food. Can't work hungry. Before you know it, the dissertation is but a foggy memory in your food binge coma.

Sound ridiculous? Not to this NYU professor:

You know, this tweet seemed fishy, until he hash-tagged it truth. Now it's indisputable.
I know what you're thinking. "Really, this guy has a PhD in psychology?" Unfortunately, perhaps he slept through the lesson on self-regulation. Self-regulation, or what some people might refer to as "willpower", is a cognitively demanding task, involving multiple processes, including self-monitoring (what am I doing?), social comparisons (what would I like to be doing or what should I be doing), and thought suppression (am I thinking about the thing I shouldn't be thinking about?). These processes require a great deal of our working memory, basically short term memory, which years of psychological research shows is a limited resource. Ever hear the expression "5 plus or minus 2"? That is the number of digits you can keep in your working memory at a time. That comes from a psychologist also, unfortunately, named Miller (George A. Miller, in fact), who hopefully would have been a bit more thoughtful in what he tweeted.

Some research does show that ability to self-regulate in childhood (usually measured by ability to forgo a small reward  - often sweets - for a larger reward later - often more sweets) has a significant correlation with ability to self-regulate later (frequently measured by achievements and completion of higher education, like a graduate degree). It's possible, then, that Miller did pay attention to this lesson, but got the wrong message. This research does not support (or even say) that children who like to eat a lot are unlikely to obtain higher degrees. The studies are simply operationalizing their concepts using things kids can understand; children, regardless of their weight status, in general like treats, and even the children who were able to forgo the treat now for a bigger treat later still ate the treat. And ate more as a result of their self-regulation. Kids who were able to "self-regulate" because they didn't actually like the treat offered were probably not included in the study results, because what they were doing was not truly self-regulation.

Additionally, the ability to self-regulate is a general trait. It's not situation-specific. So people who are shown to be good at self-regulation in one situation are likely good at self-regulating in another situation. BUT, not if those situations occur at the same time; because it's a general trait, and a limited resource, exercising strong self-regulation in one situation can actually lessen your ability to self-regulate in another. So people who practice what Miller refers to as "willpower" in completing their dissertation might actually find it difficult to self-regulate in another situation, such as healthy eating.

And grad students eating unhealthily? Yeah, that never happens. </sarcasm>

Further, grad students have another thing that could stand in the way of maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep deprivation has been shown to have a strong effect. I heard one doctor say, "Trying to diet while sleep deprived is like trying to ski uphill." Sleep deprivation has a lot of negative effects on your brain, including monitoring of hunger and satiation (feeling full). When you're sleep deprived, you feel hungry much more because your brain is telling you you're hungry, even if physiologically, you have ingested enough. So those good grad students who work long hours, late into the night, to finish their dissertation might find themselves reaching for the Cheetos a bit more often than those able to get a healthy amount of sleep. Of course, eventually, sleep deprivation does begin to attack your cognitive skills, but that's another post for another day.

So what am I trying to say? What many have said in the backlash against Miller's tweet: that weight status has no bearing on ability to complete a graduate degree. While also giving a healthy dose of psychological knowledge. Because regardless of what I may think when I look at my waistline, I have my brain and all the psychology info acquired through years of education.

Oh yeah, and my PhD. While eating all the carbs I want. Take that, Miller! Now where's that chocolate cake?

~Thoughtfully (and carb-iliciously) yours,

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