Diet & fitness

2 questions to ask before reaching for the second piece of pie

Nov. 29, 2013 at 9:41 AM ET

We indulge ourselves because we are really, really good at justifying the things that we want to do -- such as eat that second piece of pie.
We indulge ourselves because we are really, really good at justifying the things that we want to do -- such as eat that second piece of pie.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, and it is you versus leftover pie. You would think that a solid strategy to override impulsive face-stuffing episodes would be to stop for a minute and reason with yourself. Do I really want this? Do I really need it?

This is the diet strategy that's often handed out this time of year, anyway, but we know how easy it is to talk ourselves right out of it. The comedian Jim Gaffigan has a joke that goes, "I normally don't have a burger, a brat, and a steak, but — it is the Fourth of July." 

That's essentially the concept behind a new analysis of 50 studies looking at impulse control: If you give yourself a moment to think about why you should or should not have a second (third?) piece of pie, you’ll almost certainly come up with reasons why you should — even if this decision gets in the way of a long-term goal to lose weight.

That's because most of us, most of the time, don’t give in to temptation because of our lack of will power or because we’re overly impulsive, suggests the review, which was led by Dutch social psychologist Jessie de Witt Huberts. Nope — we indulge ourselves because we are really, really good at justifying the things that we just kinda want to do, even if doing those things comes at the expense of our long-term goals.

Even if you're not interested in weight loss, you're not immune to this concept. If you've ever trained for a race, you know how easy it is to skip a run because you "walked a lot today." Or, if you've ever tried to save money by going out to eat less, you know how easy it is to head to happy hour with your friends because you "worked really hard this week." But even though we instinctively know this happens, there hasn’t been a lot of research to prove it. As most of psychology research sees it, "when we fail to act in line with our intentions, we lack self-control or are overwhelmed by impulse," de Witt Huberts said via email. "As a result it is often advised to think before you act, so as to cool down and make a reasoned decision. However, our reasoning is not immune to our motivations and impulses either. ... In fact, we often rely on reasoning processes to indulge."

Recently, research has started to emerge that examines how we are able to talk ourselves into sabotaging our own goals. In these studies, participants are provided with a justification — they've done something responsible or "good." Next, they have to make some sort of choice, ostensibly as part of a separate study. In one example, people who imagined donating a sizable chunk of their tax return to charity were more likely to choose for themselves expensive sunglasses over a more practical pair — the idea is that they were more likely to think they "deserved" the fancier pair. The same has been found with food, de Witt Huberts says. "These studies have consistently found that participants who had a justification were more likely to choose the unhealthy option or eat more of the unhealthy snacks in the bogus taste test than people without a justification."

What's fascinating about this idea, de Witt Huberts says, is how easily people were convinced by their own justifications. In the tax return example, for instance — people just imagined that they had helped someone, and even that was enough to justify choosing the nicer pair of shades.

The good news is that once we understand how skilled we are at manipulating ourselves, it gets easier to resist our own manipulations. Take another minute to really consider your justifications, and ask yourself these questions:

1) Is this really a circumstance that allows me to make an exception? (And for holidays like Thanksgiving, that answer is probably yes.)

2) Does this help me to reach my goal? "Even if the answer to the first question is affirmative," de Witt Huberts says, "the second question will help people realize that they might be fooling themselves, and keep them on track."