Girl Interrupted

Sunday, January 22, 2006

[+/-] Diet: Cognitive dissonance applied to a weight loss program

I am psychologically invested in the TLC program I wrote about earlier.

[+/-] WARNING: technical stuff follows - and it's a bit of a whopper of a post [+/-]
    The theory of cognitive dissonance (in a nut shell), links thoughts with attitudes, focussing on attitude change. Basically, the brain can't hold two opposing thoughts for a prolonged period of time without rationalising it in some way:

    Two cognitions (thoughts) are consonant if one follows from the other, e.g. "smoking causes illness" and "one shouldn't smoke." Two cognitions may be said to be dissonant when the obverse (or opposite) of a cognition follows from the other, e.g. the smoker who knows smoking causes illness, and yet continues to smoke. Cognitive dissonance, then, is the state of tension or discomfort that occurs when a person simultaneously hold two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent, or holds a belief that is incongruent with the person's behaviour.

    This state is psychologically uncomfortable, and the person is motivated to reduce this discomfort. The intensity of dissonance is influenced by the degree of discrepancy between cognitions, the number of dissonant beliefs and the importance the person has attached to those beliefs. Additionally, the intensity of dissonance decreases with an increasing number of consonant beliefs which support an otherwise incongruent behaviour.

    Dissonance can be reduced or eliminated by changing cognitions (i.e. adding new consonant cognitions or removing dissonant cognitions) or by changing the importance of cognitions (i.e. increasing the importance of consonant cognitions and/or reducing the importance of dissonant cognitions). A classic example is the behaviour of smokers. Cigarette smoking is dissonant with the awareness that smoking causes illness. The smoker could reduce dissonance by changing his/her behaviour and quit smoking. Alternatively, the smoker could add consonant cognitions by emphasising the benefits of smoking ("Smoking helps me relax"), or could reject the dissonant cognition ("Smoking isn't really bad for you"). The smoker might also reduce the importance of the dissonant idea ("I'm more likely to die in a car crash") or increase the importance of a consonant cognition, such as the enjoyment the smoker gets out of smoking.

    There are specific paradigms of dissonance theory, including:

    Induced compliance:
    Individuals are persuaded to behave in ways which are at odds with their beliefs, or private attitudes, creating cognitive dissonance. Individuals can be induced to engage in this behaviour by promises of rewards, or threats of punishment – in other words, providing consonant cognitions that support or justify the behaviour. Dissonance can be reduced by a change in attitude or belief towards the behaviour (which is generally easier than changing the behaviour itself). For example, students were induced to write essays which strongly contradicted their personal beliefs and were offered a variety of incentives, ranging from $0.50 to $10 (a reasonably large sum of money at the time of the experiment). It was found that students offered a large sum of money had little or no attitude change – the money was enough to justify writing the essay, and thus little dissonance occurred. On the other hand, students who were offered a small sum had a greater shift in attitude towards the beliefs they wrote about in the essay – dissonance between their original beliefs and their behaviour was high, while the sum of money offered was not enough to justify this behaviour; therefore, an attitude change towards the beliefs in the essay was required to reduced dissonance, and hence their discomfort. The main points gathered from these experiments are that (1) behaviour that is inconsistent with one's attitudes can produce a change in those attitudes, and (2) the degree of attitude change increases as the justification for performing the behaviour decreases. So if one wants to obtain private attitude change rather than public compliance, the rewards should be just enough to induce compliance, and not so much that the reward itself becomes the justification for compliance. This is contrary to conventional wisdom, or common sense. However, the issue isn't logical inconsistency, but psychological inconsistency.

    So, for me, my induced compliance is this: I have just spent R1100 and had a needle stuck in my arm. This is going to have to be justified by forcing this program to work for me - I didn't go through the needle thing for nothing. (I am completely terrified of needles). Clearly, I must really want this healthier lifestyle... right?

    A number of factors critical to this theory include:

    1. Freedom of choice – if the participant feels forced to engage in behaviour that is at odds with his/her beliefs, dissonance is reduced because, ultimately, the coercion is the justification for the behaviour, and so no attitudinal shift is required. If, however, the choice has been made freely, a change in attitude is likely to occur in order to reduce the tension felt by the dissonant cognitions. For example, compulsory military training would produce little dissonance with the fact that basic training is difficult and unpleasant, while a voluntary recruit might try to convince himself that the training isn't all that bad. Similarly, I've volunteered for this, and its already working for me - this is the first time in more than ten years that I had a needle in my arm and I didn't cry!

    2. Commitment – the degree of commitment to the disliked position influences the degree of dissonance felt by the participant, and hence the likeliness of a change in attitude. If such behaviour is performed publicly, or if the behaviour is seen as important or irrevocable, dissonance is greater, and hence an attitudinal shift is required to ease psychological tension. For example, there is no dissonance between "I spent a great deal of money for this camera equipment" and "I'm not fond of photography" if one knows one can return the equipment or re-sell it and recuperate the money. In these instances, one is sometimes motivated to reduce dissonance by seeking social support and reassuring information. This is often seen after purchasing a new car – the decision is hard, with many models to choose from, it's expensive, and one usually cannot change one's mind. People in this situation often exaggerate some positive quality of their car, criticize the qualities of other cars and/or seek reassuring information about their car in consumer reports. In my situation, I am making my efforts public (and I would appreciate it a lot if my friends could hum and hah and threaten me with I-told-you-soes if it is not working for me). While they do offer a money back guarantee, it includes a minimum guarantee of 1 kg a week, or 4 kg per month. Of course I am going to lose at least this amount. So there is no way I am going to get any of my money back from this... More dissonance.

    3. Personal responsibility for aversive consequences – if the induced behaviour leads to an unwanted event, especially consequences which could have been foreseen, the dissonance is greater. For example, if one runs over a dog, less dissonance is experienced if one never saw the dog coming than if one saw the dog at the side of the road and didn't slow down. I don't know how much of this applies in this situation, except that maybe my muscle pain is exacerbated by the overweightness, so its all my fault...

    A second paradigm of dissonance is:

    Justification of effort
    This is closely linked to induced compliance. Dissonance occurs whenever a person chooses to "suffer" for something they really want – if an unpleasant activity is required to obtain something desirable, dissonance can be reduced by "exaggerating" the desirability of the outcome. Nuff said about that one...

    There are some others, but basically, I'm tired of typing now... anyway, its all summed up very nicely in this Dilbert cartoon, as well as this Dilbert cartoon.

    Additionally, this program alleges to improve serotonin levels, and they say (I'm a little sceptical of this one) that I will probably be able to come off my anti-depressants within three weeks. Hell, if it works, great - I was considering asking my doc for an increased dosage, but I will try this first.

    Also, I'm hoping that there will be less strain on my muscles if I weigh less, and I need to do that quickly - this taking of morphine pain killers thing is a pain in the ass...



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