A Brain-Based Solution to the Obesity Epidemic?

09/17/2010 07:40 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Recently CNN reported some fascinating statistics on the problem of obesity in America. In essence, two-thirds of all Americans are either overweight or obese. This is staggering given that back in 1985 no state (as reported to the CDC) had an obesity rate greater than 1 in 10 people. Now, only 25 years later, we have reached a staggering level of obesity in America, with only Colorado and Washington D.C. reporting obesity rates under 20 percent.

But what is most fascinating is a psychological phenomenon around this data; namely that 3 in 10 overweight people feel they are normal, and 7 in 10 obese people (body mass index of 30 or greater) feel they are simply overweight. If rational means of influencing behavior was king, then we would have a backside psychological response to this data that would be more in sync with the actual situation at hand. But it appears that human beings seem to be a step behind in aligning with an unfiltered truth of information. If overweight people externally are normal weight internally, and obese people merely overweight, does this mean we have a crisis of perception around other important human factors around performance and relational mastery?

  • Are low emotionally intelligent people processing themselves as "not bad?"
  • Are leaders reviewing their 360 data in perpetually "yes, but" terms?
  • Is conflict in marriages and teams usually pseudo-acknowledged?
  • Is not saying anything when a recommendation is made taken as full-hearted agreement?

All these real life perceptual crises seem to breed from a hybrid of brain-based biases and a George Carlin-esque unfolding of a life that is like his skit around euphemisms and politically correct terms, with the focus this time not on other people's feelings but on our own eternal quest for dissonance reduction.

Cognitive dissonance, a theory made prominent by the work of Leon Festinger, holds that when people hold two competing or conflicting ideas simultaneously in their head it can create an uncomfortable feeling of tension with a primary drive internally to reduce this feeling. Seeking such homeostasis may work for body temperature and other regulatory systems of the body, but when it intersects with matters of the brain and real life decision making, we can literally re-write the rules in ways that are unnoticed by us. The best way, therefore, to reduce the discomfort is to change around the initial belief system so reality and the data provided around us works better for us.

The obesity epidemic and our collective response as Americans are likely influenced by this fundamental neurological drive. Instead of assisting in the breakdown of these processes, the consumer products industry has implicitly reinforced these tendencies by introducing vanity sizing of their clothing lines. What is this exactly? It is basically a switch of the rules again so we are not disrupted by reality. For instance, on some clothes a size 36 waist is marketing as anywhere between a size 37 to 41. This allows us to feel we are not gaining weight. This to me is fascinating for businesses in America who hire consultants like me to work on accountability of their employees all the while quietly holding an ontology behind the scenes that makes the actuality of the thing they want taught unreachable. Guess the corporate brain is as neurotic as we are individually.

But I digress ...

Another brain-based process that may be at play in how we calm the health crisis that is brewing around us all has to do with something that researchers have called the "identifiable victim bias." This states we are more likely to help in a perceived need or crisis when we can identify with that person -- that is, we will help "the" person more than "a" person. This bias explains that statistical trends and data do little to move our moral emotions, even if the numbers are alarming on many levels. Analytical processing seems to suppress the rise of the emotional response needed to move beyond this innate tendency.

The plot thickens when we apply these two neurologically influenced tendencies to the issue of obesity and the necessary behavior changes. As you can see, they work hand in glove in a masterful way to truly protect you from ever really seeing things as are. You see, one may propose that the way to engage human beings to make a change in health behavior is to make it more one-to-one emotionally meaningful so as to "trip the wire" of the identifiable victim bias to work in our favor; to see yourself as this identifiable real person and not a statistic that doctors throw at you in your check ups. But where does this lead? This inevitably leads to the cognitive dissonance mechanism to kick in when what is needed brings more discomfort or pain. The tendency here is to then reduce it by any means possible.

Perhaps the answer lies in not just eating and exercise recommendations, but in building meta-cognition (thinking about one's thinking more intelligently) so that better neural pathways can be created to not just comply to recommendations, but more importantly better assess what is going on in your brain when the recommendations and you don't "fit." Teaching heart-healthy menus and exercise regimens are great, but are we teaching a menu of insidious brain biases and transformational paradoxes like the one above? Starting with the ending in the beginning, so to speak, from a neuro-level, can create change without ever tripping the "motivationally resistant or not ready" wire which is the standard explanation for the disconnect in the research that started this blog. This ironically self-protects an individual from taking the leap in the first place.

The brain, in other words, can not be forgotten in this process of behavior change. Without knowing these fundamental brain laws, you risk your brain being as sluggish as your feet on that treadmill.

Editor's Note: This article originally defined "obese" as people having a body mass index of 20 or greater. The correct calculation is a BMI of 30 or greater. We regret the error.