If You Need to Lose Weight, Beware the 'Licensing Effect'

Suppose you know you’re overweight. You’re well aware that this is a serious health risk and you’re keen to do something to get yourself in trim. That’s an important first step, but make sure that what you do from now onwards is genuinely likely to remedy the situation. Beware the dangers of tokenism, when you do something that makes you feel good about your intentions, but which in fact does nothing to tackle the underlying problem. This can easily have a rebound effect, as was demonstrated some years ago when researchers gave smokers vitamin tablets to improve their health. This caused them to smoke more, because deep down they felt that the pills would keep them well without any necessity on their part to curb their nicotine addiction. Something similar happened last year when

a Time reporter was seduced into taking a course of nutraceuticals recommended by a food supplement manufacturer. This proved to be a costly exercise, since he took 24 pills a day for five months, which cost him a total of well over a thousand dollars. Making a substantial outlay like this should have been beneficial, for repeated trials have shown that the higher the price placed on an over-the-counter drug the more effective it becomes. However, in this case, the only noticeably change was that the journalist put on over two kilograms of weight. ‘I noticed that my jeans were tight,’ he said in his report, ‘I went up a notch on my belt.’ This was because, at a subconscious level, he’d stopped thinking about his diet and level of aerobic exercise and taken instead to relying on the pills to keep him fit.

Many people feel that after an energetic work-out in the gym, or a long cross-country hike, they’ve earned some form of pleasurable reward. This may take the form of a mountainous slice of cream cake, or a few hours lounging in front of the idiot’s lantern. Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘licensing effect’ and believe that it may explain the explosive growth in the sale of dietary supplements. These are now taken by half the US population, which remains one of the fattest in the world. A recent research trial in Taiwan revealed that South Asians are also subject to the licensing effect. A group of volunteers was recruited and then subjected to a battery of psychological tests. They were split into two groups, one of which was given a vitamin pill, the other an inert, sugar coated placebo. Subsequently it was found that those who’d been given the vitamin pill became more casual about their health. They were more likely to indulge in casual sex and excessive drinking. When given a voucher for a meal, they more commonly choose a calorie-rich buffet meal than a healthy organic meal. They were also less likely to take part in yoga classes and more inclined to take short cuts when given walking tasks. In addition they showed an aura of invulnerability, which was not found in the group which had been given the dummy pill, as revealed by their agreement with statements like “Nothing can harm me”. The researchers were convinced that these behavioural changes were an expression of the licensing effect. Because they were taking pills, they felt they had no need to follow a healthy life style. But don’t be fooled. Whatever the copy writers suggest, taking health food supplements will do nothing whatsoever to get rid of your love handles, spare tyres or man boobs.

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