The Psychology of the Perfected Self

Hamburger morphing into a salad through technology

The theory of operant conditioning is found in every Psychology 101 textbook: a creature responds to a stimulus with a certain behavior; the behavior is either reinforced or punished; the next behavior depends on the positive or negative response to the previous. Denounced as “manipulative,” psychologist B.F. Skinner’s groundbreaking theory became widely known as “behavior modification,” and was stigmatized as “what not to do” in raising and teaching children. However, David H. Freedman argues that we should be embracing a Skinner-esque regime in order to combat the obesity epidemic:

The specifics may sound familiar: set modest goals (to encourage sustainable progress and frequent reinforcement); rigorously track food intake and weight (precise measurement is key to changing behavior, especially when it comes to eating, since a few bites a day can make the difference between weight loss and weight gain); obtain counseling or coaching (to diagnose what environmental factors are prompting or rewarding certain behaviors); turn to fellow participants for support (little is more reinforcing than encouragement from peers, who can also help with problem-solving); transition to less-calorie-dense foods (to avoid the powerful, immediate reinforcement provided by rich foods); and move your body more often, any way you like (to burn calories in a nonpunishing way).

Apps like Lose It use techniques very similar to ones outlined by Skinner to help people successfully lose weight. Is it worth it? Should we use “outdated” psychology principles to save ourselves?

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