As every weight-loss veteran knows -- and too many parents of overweight kids are learning--the most fattening foods are often the most comforting, conjuring up memories of sweet treats and celebrations. That's why there was so much interest last week in a report out of the University of California, Irvine that suggests a new approach to thinking about food: brainwashing.
Or, as Elizabeth Loftus prefers to call it, planting false memories. Loftus is famous in psychological circles for her controversial work investigating claims of child and sexual abuse. She was able to show that people can be persuaded to remember terrible things that never happened. Could the same power of suggestion change a dieter's appetite?
To test that thesis, Loftus and her assistants gave 131 students a questionnaire about their food preferences and experiences. Members of one group were told, falsely, that at some point in their childhood strawberry ice cream had made them sick. The researchers then encouraged the students to elaborate, asking them where they were when they got sick and who else witnessed the episode. When questioned later about which foods they wanted to eat, 41% of this group said they would avoid strawberry ice cream.
"What we've shown is that we can plant a false belief or memory, and that has consequences in terms of what we choose to eat," says Loftus. She showed similar results in the vegetable section of the food pyramid, giving people a taste for asparagus by conning them into thinking that they liked it as children.
Would a mind-over-matter diet really work? Loftus doesn't know yet; she's still trying to figure out how long these effects last. But, she says, "nothing would stop a parent of an overweight child from trying this out on their kid"--as long as parents don't expect miracles. Weight control, after all, involves a devilishly complex combination of genes, biology and the environment. But every little bit helps when you are dieting--even the power of suggestion.