Why you should care
Because, like Bruce Banner, we all wish we could master our emotions.
You’ve heard it before: Diets don’t work. Over the long haul, they often lead to even bigger waistbands. The key to lasting weight loss is lifestyle change. But, really, does anyone know the difference between the two? New research suggests it has nothing to do with whether or not we call it a diet and everything to do with how we perceive our successes along the way:
Stay focused on the action (in this case, what you’re eating), and as you make disciplined decisions it will inspire you to continue on that track.
Concentrate on the progress you’re making toward the goal, and you’re more likely to reward yourself with doughnuts.
“It’s a very nuanced distinction,” says lead author Anthony Salerno, an assistant marketing professor at University of Cincinnati. It comes down to pride: authentic pride and false pride. When people feel proud for exerting self-control — whether it’s eating healthfully or saving money — they continue making positive choices. But when they feel proud based on how they’re measuring up against some specific marker, like a weight loss goal, they’re more likely to feel entitled to indulge. It follows the licensing effect: Do something good and you feel license to do something bad.
While psychologists have spent the past two decades studying basic emotions like happiness and anger, much less is known about so-called self-conscious emotions, such as pride, envy and shame. As it turns out, pride can have a positive or negative effect, depending on how it’s leveraged. The good news: “Emotions are relatively easily to manipulate,” says Keith Wilcox, a professor at Columbia Business School. “The key is self-awareness.” The study is part of a growing body of research that helps us understand how our emotional states influence why we do what we do; scientists are also looking at how self-conscious feelings sway other behaviors, including creative expression.
As Salerno says, though, it’s a fine line. And it can be hard to pin down all of the various drivers that might be manipulating someone’s behavior. The study looked only at how pride influences eating and spending habits, so it’s unclear whether these findings would carry over to, say, getting up early. But if Wilcox is right, it might not be long before we have even more insight into the role pride plays in everyday life. “Pride,” he says, “is the last emotional frontier.”