Disrupting Old Patterns and Replacing Them With Something New

I was lecturing the other day on cognitive theories within social psychology and started talking about schema. A schema is, essentially, a set of affective cognitions–or thoughts–that people have about a certain object, a class of people, activities, etc. Generally, these schema can be classified as good or bad. We like them or we don’t.

The interesting thing about a schema is that once you have one, it affects the way you process information: that is, whether or not you even notice something, how quickly it becomes part of your consciousness, and even how long you remember it! And because most humans strive for cognitive consistency, they tend to not notice, disregard, or forget about information that does not fit their schema. This is one reason why culturally held stereotypes are so slow to change.

Anyway, I was trying to come up with an example of a schema that I have and almost immediately, I flashed on the imagine of a cupcake. Let’s be honest: I love cupcakes. Not only do they taste good, they’re the right size, they smell delicious, I like the weight of them in my hand (you can eat them with your hands!), and they bring back fond memories of childhood parties, etc. In other words, I have a positive associations with cupcakes on just about every possible level. In case you’re curious, cupcakes are triggers for me. Or, more to the point, they used to be.

Now, assume that you loved cupcakes as much as I did. Would you stop eating them just because I told you that you should? No, not really. It might work for awhile, but eventually you’d see one and you’d be like, “Oh!” Because when you see them or when you smell them, you associate all of this really good stuff with them–not to mention they taste like cake!

Now, the other day on The Biggest Loser, the coaches had placed covered trays around the gym. Contestants were supposed to work out and every so often they had to pick a tray, which either held a non-food-prize or a food-prize. And the food-prizes weren’t carrots and celery, they were cupcakes and brownies and such! So, think about it, you’re in a gym, you’re working as hard as you possibly can to lose weight so that you can stay in the running, and your coaches are forcing you to eat junk food–on national T.V.

One woman actually consumed 3,500 calories during this exercise! 3,500 calories of junk food which could have immediate and severe consequences on the likelihood of further participation! Do you think she was enjoying those cupcakes? Do you think that she was savoring the smell and thinking about how much her mother must have loved her to make cupcakes once a month for her class? No! She was thinking about how each and every bite was potentially going to get her voted off! She was thinking about how each and every bite was going straight to her hips. And after weeks of only eating healthy food, she was probably thinking about how disgusting all that fat and sugar felt coursing through her system–or rather, sitting in her stomach like a lead balloon.

And at the end of the exercise, do you think Jillian Michaels comforted this poor woman for having blown her diet? No. What she did say was something like this: “I want you to remember this. I want you to remember what it felt like. I want you to remember the sick feeling in your stomach when you ate this junk. Every time you’re confronted with something that used to tempt you, I want you to remember these feelings. I want you to remember what it felt like. I want you remember what you felt like.”

Wow. That Jillian woman is scary, huh? While it may seem like she’s a real witch, she actually gave these people a huge gift. Essentially, she broke their mostly positive schema regarding certain types of food and she replaced it with something negative. She didn’t tell them that it was bad for them, but she got them to know it in their bodies, their emotions, and their identities.

Now this may seem extreme, but I had a similar experience recently. I went out to dinner with Michael and I really, really wanted a hamburger and fries. It had been years since I’d had one and I thought, what’s the big deal? And just to add insult to injury, I also tossed on some blue cheese and bacon! Although Michael paid for the meal at the time, I paid for it all night long. I couldn’t sleep; my stomach was killing me; I felt like I was 9 months pregnant; and I looked it too!

Assuming that I am ever face-to-face with another blue cheese bacon burger and a plate of fries, how tempted do you think I’d be, on a scale from 1 to 10? It’s true that I could focus on how much I liked the restaurant and what a good time that I had with Michael that day and maybe I’d get over it, but why would I want to? Instead, what I will do when I get the urge for a burger or fries, or both, is remember what it felt like the night after I had actually had both. I’ll focus on the bloating. I’ll focus on the inability to sleep. I’ll remember how tired I was the next morning. And, more often than not, I’ll happily order a salad or some nicely broiled piece of salmon!

Have I had a hamburger since? No.

Have I missed it? Not really.

In the coming weeks, I’ll offer some tips and suggestions on how not only to interrupt old cognitive patterns regarding food and exercise, but also how to replace them with something new!

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5 comments so far

  1. Hannah on

    I certainly enjoy reading this blog, Thankyou

    • KJ on

      Thanks! I’ll be posting on cleansing later. I’m not endorsing any particular product, but it might be interesting it get your perspective.

  2. Q on

    I had a similar, but worse experience not to long ago with a grease-laden, 5-day spectacle of over eating. I was sick and miserable. Thanks for the tip on focusing the negative aspect of the experience to keep me from repeating the ordeal. Maybe I can break this seemingly repetitive cycle.

  3. Charles on

    About schema, or something very similar:

    If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.
    – Bertrand Russell

    • KJ on

      I’ll most certainly be using that on my next social psychology syllabus! Thanks!


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