Behavior Modification 101: How to Beat Your Rationalizations at Their Own Game

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Out of all the creatures on this planet, only one has the ability to talk itself out of doing what it knows it needs to do. That would be you: homo sapiens.

Although this capacity shows up everywhere in human affairs, it is nowhere more extreme or self-defeating than when it is employed by your average dieter. It’s as if, when you go on a diet, something happens to your brain that makes you thoroughly incapable of recognizing even the most flagrant rationalization for what it is. Here’s a classic example, familiar to dieters everywhere:

It’s mid-afternoon, and you’ve done well all day at sticking to your diet. But something has come up, and you’ve broken into your secret candy stash for a quick dose of chocolate, your favorite comfort food. Next thing you know, you’re telling yourself: “Well, I’ve already blown my diet for today, so I might as well finish off that candy and start over tomorrow.” Then, it’s off to the local fast food joint for dinner.

Obviously, this is a rationalization that makes no real sense. In fact, it’s a pretty flagrant rationalization. You're not merely allowing yourself to overdo it a little with the chocolate, you’re giving yourself permission to make things much worse. Once things have gotten to this stage, there’s very little chance that simple rationality will assert itself and persuade you to get back on plan before serious damage is done. That bus has already pulled out.

So, what’s a person to do when this happens? Simple. You have to fight fire with fire.

You've probably heard of "aversion" therapy--that's where you take some behavior you're trying to stop and pair it with an immediate negative experience (like an electric shock) so that your brain starts associating that behavior with the negative experience. Alcoholics, for example, sometimes take a drug called Antabuse, which literally makes you sick if you take a drink.

This is a little trickier to do when the behavior you want to stop is a mental behavior, like rationalizing your way into doing something dumb, but sometimes using a little imagination and a powerful visual image can do the trick. The first step, though, is to identify the real problem.

In our example, the real problem is not that you’re using a rationalization. The real problem, of course, is that you want to keep eating, and that's the thing you need to change. Once you do that, the rationalizations and excuses will disappear on their own.

Unfortunately, just telling yourself that your rationalization doesn't really make sense isn't usually enough to change the desire to keep eating into something else. For that, you need to connect the desire itself to some kind of undersirable experience or image, so that your brain will be eager to go somewhere else when it pops up.

You could do something like hit yourself in the head whenever the urge to keep eating comes up, but that would be pretty inconsistent with creating a healthy lifestyle–brain damage is rarely healthy. This is where you need to use a little imagination to get the job done. Instead of fighting the urge to keep eating, or telling yourself how dumb it is, try taking it to the extreme, in your mind. Imagine, for a minute, what it would be like to eat continuously, without stopping, and see how that makes you feel. Is that really what you want for yourself? What would the world look like if everyone did that?

For those of you who have trouble imagining something like this, here's a link to a video you can use to get your creative juices flowing:

Wearable Feedbags

Whether this particular image works for you, or you need to create one of your own, you get the idea. Find some image or thought that makes you feel uncomfortable, and bring it to mind whenever you have that urge to keep eating more than you need. It won’t be long until your brain decides it’s not worth it to play this game anymore.

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Certainly an interesting way of looking at fast food and over eating. I think the next time I get an urge for a Cheeseburger from McDonalds that image will stick in my head. Report
The article is excellent. I also use denial sometimes - where I don't even think or rationalize my unhealthy eating times. It's like pulling down a shade and being in a pitch-dark place so that I can't see, think or hear the reality of unhealthy eating. Report
That is a great video! Ewwww! I will definitely keep that in mind when I make poor food choices. I think this will do it! Report
Yep, that video did it for me. Report
When I was about 7 years old, I snuck a large bar of Hershey's sweet cooking chocolate out of the refrigerator and ate about half of it. It made me incredibly sick -- my mom didn't even bother to punish me since the chocolate itself seems to have done the trick. To this day, I cannot eat more than a few bites at a time of anything that is very sweet, especially sweet chocolate, although I can eat (and love) the sweetness of fruit. I look back on this as one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me. Report
Indulge and enjoy, don't beat yourself up. Report
This article was great! Even better the video. The next time I feel like stuffing my face I will watch this video. No excuses! Report
I watched Wall-E recently and the image of the humungous people who got no exercise and eat nothing but big gulps is enough for me to change my ways. Report
Interesting article and bang on.

Friday evening on my way home I had to stop and get cat food.....well of course I had to buy something for me the silly me bought a can of mixed nuts - and so I went home pleased with my purchase even though I knew it was not a good purchase. And to make matters worse I ate almost the whole can that nite.....that was stomach was in knots - the cramping and dibilitation went on till the next afternoon - hopefully now I will associate indulging on something like an entire can of nuts as painful ......not to mention the ton of fat and salt that I ate too.

With any luck the next time I look at a can of mixed nuts I will remember the pain and avoid it all together.

So my experience although not as horrible as eating non stop would sure taught me a lesson.....hopefully one that will stay in my head for a long long time..
One of my favorite foods is...I mean was...pasta alfredo. I remember hearing once that alfredo is a "heart clogger" so I always picture the cream going into my heart and just sticking there, making it harded for my heart to work properly. Things like that seem to work for me...most of the time :) Report
Dean, you are sooo FUNNY!! What a sense of humor- you've got me laughin' till the tears were rollin' but you are sooo right! I don't think that image of 'the feedbag' will leave my brain for some time!! You're GREAT!! LOL!! Report
OMG! That image will definatley work for me!!!!!! Report
That video is the ultimate in laziness!! Hilarious! I'm going to learn some new behavior modification. All or nothing isn't working for me and never did. Thanks for the great articles! Report
Hysterical! I never let one little slip up ruin my whole day anymore, or my whole "diet". Report
It's so true that we are told to look at the image we want to be and not at what we are, but if looking at a picture of how we WANT to look doesn't work...which for me it doesn't, then I think looking at a picture of what I DO look like now might be a better incentive. It sounds awful, but if you do see what you don't like regularly, you are more prone to work harder on changing it. I've been wanting to do this but thought it would be harmful. I'm glad I read it. Report
been there - done that - got the XXL t-shirt.

That video helped me. I will try to remember that in my moments of weakness. Report
When I was in middle school, my science teacher (teaching us about the stomach and digestion) took a large ziploc bag and put in everything that was on our school lunch plate. Then she added the milk, zipped it up, and squished it into goo. I never at that lunch again!! Maybe it would work for pastries and Starbucks! Report
this article was SO funny! I cracked up while reading this because it's so true. You tell yourself "oh it's over...i'll start again tomorrow!" hahaha love the video and I'll def. be trying this concept from now on! Report
This is the first time in my 60 years of "dieting" that I have not blown one day in the last - almost 6 months! All of my life, I blew it and would "start the new diet on Monday", so I said. One time my mother said, "When is that Monday coming?" It has finally come and now I am eating as I should each day and just hit the -25 lb. mark. I am really so proud to say I haven't blown a day yet, but can sympathize with those who do, as I have "Been There, DoneThat". Report
Love the feedbags, don't tell my husband though, he'll buy one for me..hehehe
Amazing article on the rationalization, that totally is it for me, one bite of "naughty" stuff and I wanna stop at the next fast food place and make sure i've blown the day, followed by many days afterwards of the same behavior..TOTALLY drives me nuts Report
*laughs!* That's priceless, yea... that kind of imagry is how I turn my head from things I don't want to start abusing- for instance, booze is a lot less attractive if you ponder for a moment how you'll feel if you go nuts and drink five or six of everything. ;) It's not that i never drink, it's just a good way to encourage my brain to realize Moderation is the key- overdoing anything is just NOT attractive. Report
The video was hilarious! These rationalizations have been on my mind lately... why do we do that to ourselves? Thanks for the blog... Report
I love the Onion!

Coach Dean Anderson, I know I'm going to sound like a huge dork, but I don't care. You are the best!!! Report
Ha! Love The Onion.
That mental picture oughta do it! Report
OMG that video made me want to barf! i will definitely use it as my little mental mantra! Report
I haven't looked at the video yet, so really what I'm doing is commenting on someone else's posting.

HOLCOL, I'm glad you said what you did. I have allowed myself to think that molly-codlling is the way to go and therefore when I indulge, I don't make myself feel so bad.

You conjured up quite the visual with saturated animal fat and a few choice chemicals. Not only did I feel my stomach lurch, but as I said, it conjured up a visual.

It's good to know I am not the only person who does better with the verbal slap up the head. Report
Positive images haven't seemed to work for me. It never occurred to me to go negative. That would be more intense, probably more affective, more memorable. Report
The girls at work don't know how I don't join in on their chocolate binges. What they don't know is that I find it easy to do so when I'm picturing my own naked butt. That image keeps me eating healthy more often than not! :) Report
I agree with Holcol!! Great video. it reminded me of the film 'Wall-E' when nobody walks anymore because they don't need to, and the film turns the ideas of laziness around and the world is encouraged to revert to the 'old' lifestyle and the notion of exercising becomes good!! Report
Ha ha, what a great video - the Onion rocks!! This one also made me laugh: "Domino's Scientists Test Limits Of What Humans Will Eat"

It's all definitely "food for thought". Report
I find it odd that some people have failed to recognise that the video is a piece of very insightful social satire. I'm British, and our sense of humour is a little different, and such satirical comedy is very common here. Being able to poke fun at your own weaknesses is a sign of your own humility as far as I am concerned, so those people who feel very offended by this video should perhaps stop being so proud. This is not about demonising the occasional chocolate bar; it's a motivation device for those moments when everything seems to be getting out of hand. I would even say the video is more offensive to horses and other animals who wear such feedbags - it is almost feasible that we as human beings would hijack such legitimate feeding devices in order to hurt ourselves.

As to the video's proposed function, I can see both sides of the argument, but it all boils down to understanding what makes you tick personally. Some people need constant encouragement and reassurance that their mistakes don't matter in the grand scheme of things. I work differently: I sometimes need a good talking to, a "verbal slap" if you like, to stop me being so self-indulgent when I make mistakes. Aversion therapy is the fancy name for this dose of harsh reality, but it works for me. Nothing puts me off eating that bit of greasy rubbish more than reminding myself that it's just a lump of saturated animal fat mixed with a few choice chemicals. Sometimes the positive image of myself 20lbs lighter seems too far off to be effective, so I look for some tough love, something to scare me into good behaviour instead! Report
One of the things I do to try and help myself not over indulge in something is not keep it in my home. My drug of choice is ice cream so what I've done this time is my weigh day is Tuesday. So my reward making it through the week without falling of the healthy living wagon is to get a sugar free/fat free kiddie cup of frozen yogurt from TCBY. Report
Yeah heard of this from coach den! Report
I think an issue I have with this as an emotional eater is that this sounds kind of like black and white thinking...why do I have to reinforce the act of eating one chocolate with a negative image. For people who see themselves as victims, they feel helpless in their actions, even when the know the outcome will be negative! So to imagine something negative is only setting someone like that up to be more of a failure, in my very humble opinion :) Report
That video was absolutely disgusting! How could anyone be okay with having that food all over your face from eating like a barnyard animal just because it's "too much work to use your arms"? I mean seriously are we becoming so lazy that using our hands/arms to propel the food to our mouths is too much work?
I think the video is a good idea of something to think of when eating to get yourself to slow down rather than just inhaling the food, IF you can stomach the thought of those images. Thanks for sharing the video. Report
I know this is a joke but many things said in jest have the truth running through it. We are rapidly becoming a country of severly obese people with a myriad of serious health problems. Hooray for those of us that have found Spark people I hope the rest of the country catches on soon. Report
What a great video...I love the Onion. I also suggest having a Fat and Thin picture comparison right at your desk, on your fridge, everywhere! I do them on my spark page and the comparisons really help. Report
Brilliant! Report
I really don't beat myself up if I have a piece of chocolate or a cookie or whatever snack I choose to eat. Maybe its because I have a couple of pounds to play with but I think that you can get back on the horse if you fall off and binge for a day or two. It might take a little longer to lose weight but I don't think punishment is a good thing. I have always believed in not depriving myself on a diet, that often leads to the binging you talk about in the blog, so I really don't believe in the aversion therapy plan. Report
It would be great for the WHOLE WORLD if all we had to do was say some little positive comment like" wait a minute, do you really want to undo all your hard work and eat that candy bar?" For those of us who compulsively overeat, that just doesn't cut it most of the time.

Aversion therapy is very affective at times...I still consider placing a picture of myself only in my underwear, on my refrigerator. That would be truly revolting to me, but I just can't work up the nerve. The feedbag idea has made an impression! Report
I find that fighting fire with fire works... When I start to rationalize, I've taught myself to start arguing with myself. So, I want something decadent, immediately I start thinking "Now wait a minute, what do you want more? This dessert, whose pleasure is short lived and will start me spinning on a crazy cycle of binging/craving, or the healthy me, which is completely incompatible with this dessert?" Now it doesn't always work, but it does most of the time, and like a muscle, the more I use it, the stronger I get.

I think mental imagery works the same way... Whatever works for you. Ultimately, you have to decide what do you really want? And if you want to get to your goal, then you have to be willing to tell those cravings and desires NO. Brushing your teeth helps too! LOL It seems to short circuit some of those cravings. ;)

Great post! Report
Eleanor Roosevelt said "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent". I agree. I don't consider this demeaning at all. It is (1) funny as all get-out! It is SATIRE, after all, and (2) it's one strategy among many. For me aversion therapy is helpful sometimes. At other times, I positively reinforce myself with images of myself in "that dress" or "that vacation", etc. It's all good. But, next time I'm on an emotional binge and headed for the chocolate 'fix' this feed bag image will be a FUNNY, healthy reminder that I don't have to do that. I'm not an animal -- I'm a rational human being in control of my responses. Thanks, SparkPeople. Report
That is so silly!! :D Report
This video is so ridiculous, it's funny! I do believe that you have to replace a behavior, not just eliminate it. I'm hoping a positive image will work better for me. Maybe I will picture myself finishing a marathon or in a slinky "little" black dress to help myself to stop with just the 1 piece of chocolate. Although maybe the foodbag images will give me a laugh to stop the binging behaviors. Whatever works! Report
My favorite line from this video is "We're always looking for new ways to stuff food into our customers' gaping maws." That's the kernal of truth!

I already practice an aversion technique I came up with myself. I just envison the unheallthy food I'm about to eat as it's component parts. Once I have an image in my mind of a donut being a glob of fat rolled in flour and sugar and fried in more fat, it becomes immediately less appealing.

Gross, maybe, but effective. Report
The video is gross. There's a better way to control your desire. Just ignore it and instantly replace it, with some other nice picture in your head. Report
That video was SO funny. I'm reading "SHRINK YOURSELF" by ROGER GOULD, M.D. on stopping emotional eating and there is a SparkTeam to discuss his book, so I'm well aware of his point that we DON'T take time to enjoy our food and savor each bite. This is just proving his message. Report
Spark People isn't demeaning anyone. Coach Dean was discussing aversion therapy, in which you formulate a connection between a very unpleasant stimulus and an undesireable behavior with the hope of extinguishing the behavior. You could substitute something you would find less offensive. Since I always considered myself a "grazer" (eating little bits of lots of different foods throughout the day), the feedbag might be a very good visual for me to use to ward off the urge to eat uncontrollably. Report
I agree with an earlier comment. Associating eating literally like a "horse" with a feedback on because of one piece of candy is demeaning and lowers self esteem.

I think it is healthier to allow 100 calories a day in your plan for either a sweet treat or a salty treat. By doing this the desire to "sneak" candy really diminishes.

I was expecting you to suggest a positive image of looking great with the weight loss as a motivation to stick to the plan.

We have enough people calling us fat pigs and other animals without getting it from sparkspeople. I think you should remove this blog entry or rewrite it so that it affirms us instead of treating us this way.

REally! A feedbag! We are not animals! Report
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