David Solot is a Ph.D. student in organizational psychology at Walden University, with a Masters in clinical psychology. His background includes the study of animal sensation and perception, and conditioned responses to sweetness in foods. This is part two in a series on "The psychology of food aversions."
From peanut butter cookies to macaroni and cheese, there sure are a lot of food aversions out there. Hundreds of people took the time to tell us their own stories.
Lisa told us about how when she was pregnant she walked past a store selling candied pecans. The pecans got associated with her morning sickness, and now she avoids any food with cinnamon and sugar on it. Ann overdid it on Heath Bar cookies, and today she can’t even look at a Heath Bar wrapper. This leads us to our first question about food aversions:
Why does the sight and smell of these foods make us sick?
Remember where these aversions came from. The whole point of a food aversion was to make a primitive creature avoid eating something poisonous. Now your brain doesn’t give you a lot of credit here: It knows that the closer you get to something, the more likely you are to put it in your mouth. Therefore, the aversion has to start while you’re still at a safe distance.
To start with, your brain makes you feel queasy when you see the food across the room. Then as you get closer and smell the food, your brain makes you feel worse. If you walk right up to the food and put it in your mouth, the taste of the food triggers the strongest reaction of all. If you’re feeling brave, go get a food you don’t like and try each of those steps. The closer you get to the food, the worse your reaction will be.
What’s really neat is when you realize that there’s a step before “seeing the food” that gets attached to feeling sick. As intelligent creatures, we have the ability to imagine things. Imagining the food is a step that happens even farther away than seeing it. To make sure you really, really get the message, your brain will make you just a little bit sick when you imagine the food, even though it’s nowhere in sight. Go ahead, think about your most hated food. Unpleasant, isn’t it?
It’s all part of your brain’s plan to teach you to keep on walking and go forage somewhere else. And that leads to our second question:
Can’t we use this power for good?
One of the most interesting questions came from readers like Ali and Lx Bizarre, who asked if food aversions can be used to make us eat healthier or to lose weight. After all, if a food aversion can make us stop liking our favorite foods, can’t we use this to our advantage? They suggested we eat our favorite unhealthy foods when we’re sick so that we stop liking them in the future.
Reader Drat took this one step further and thought that people could take a pill that induces nausea right after eating a favorite food. No more cravings for chocolate ice cream or French fries, right?
Psychologists have known about the mechanism behind food aversions for a long time, and it stands to reason that if it was actually that simple, there’d be a diet book called “Easy and Queasy” on the best sellers list. We’d all be nauseated but we’d be thin. The problem is, as human beings, we just think too much for this to work.
Let’s say you’re reader Paige, and you want to condition yourself to stop liking pizza. If you were an animal, we could describe the process with behavioral psychology.
In behavioral psychology, if a behavior is followed by a reward, you’ll do more of that behavior in the future. If you follow a behavior with a punishment, you’ll do less of that behavior in the future. So, if an animal eats pizza and then feels sick, that animal will be less likely to eat a pizza in the future.
But when we’re talking about people, it’s a slightly different story. In her comment, Paige suggested that she would wait until she had a really bad cold, and then eat a lot of pizza. Right off the bat, we’ve got things backward.
For a food aversion to form, we need to eat the food first, and then get sick afterward - not the other way around. Conditioning doesn’t work as well in reverse, because the brain likes normal cause and effect relationships. Since we can’t usually predict when we’re going to be sick, getting the timing right is difficult.
Secondly, Paige is actively thinking about trying to form a food aversion. As it turns out, thinking about doing it is a really good way to stop it from happening. In fact, it’s how I suggested undoing one in the last article.
Because we’re intelligent creatures, our thoughts alter our reactions. So while her animal brain is trying to connect "eating pizza" to "feeling sick," her human thoughts are jumping in the way and messing things up. It would be like a magician showing you how a card trick is done while he’s still doing it. Sure, the trick looks impressive, but the magic is gone.
Now don’t get me wrong - if you did it over and over again you would start to dislike pizza. And the sicker you are, the stronger the dislike would be. But the formation of an intentional food aversion is an iffy thing, and would likely be fairly weak. And by the time you got done conditioning yourself, you would have eaten a lot of pizza. It’s probably better just to have a salad instead.
And what about Drat’s idea of taking a pill that induces nausea after you eat your favorite foods? Sorry, that’s not likely to work either. Because we’re intelligent creatures, we know that the pill is what’s making us sick, not the food. All you’re likely to do is make yourself really, really hate those pills. Drat, indeed.
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