Part of the problem is that, despite years of public health pronouncements, health class lectures, and admonitions from physicians, it’s easy to forget is that dieting and exercise aren’t exactly silver bullets. In fact, it turns out that, contrary to our intuitive and common sense expectations, restricted calorie diets and increased exercise regimens produce an extremely wide range of weight loss outcomes. For instance, the median weight loss achieved after implementing an exercise program that’s consistent with public health recommendations is less than 5 lbs, and it’s to be expected that some participants will actually gain weight.1 Such modest outcomes are counterintuitive, as physicians and other public health types are always going on and on about the importance of exercise, but common enough that we’ve all likely encountered someone whose diet or exercise plan has failed miserably (even the man in the mirror is not immune, I’m afraid). Unfortunately, the surprising, or at least notable, nature of these bad outcomes make them easier for us remember. This is an example of what psychologists call the “isolation effect.” In this case, the isolation effect means that people who are unable to lose weight with improved diet and exercise are inordinately prevalent in our memory, and consequently occupy a disproportionately preeminent place in our worldview.
None of this is especially problematic until the moment Holly and Rodney Peete try to sell you the idea that taking a pill 3 times a day is a sufficient substitute for regulated diet and increased physical activity. The Peetes, not to mention the raft of regular Joes paid by Lipozene to provide corroborating testimony, aren’t just selling you a product. They’re reinforcing the memories and ideas already being championed in your brain by the isolation effect. And, while they’re at it, the advertisers are also appealing to whatever small part of you that wouldn’t actually mind a shortcut, quick fix, or easy way out. Because you’re being told not only what you want to hear, but also what (on some level, anyway) you believe to be true, you’re much more likely to accept what you’re being told as fact. Psychologists call this phenomenon “confirmation bias.” And in terms of Lipozene’s sales pitch, confirmation bias is where the rubber meets the road. Without it, the emotional endorsements and over-the-top praise are bound to be evaluated by more critical ears and jaundiced eyes; ultimately, the product would stand or fall on the basis of its performance alone. Which, needless to say, wouldn’t be good for business.
But the weight loss industry need not worry: unlike those pesky love handles, there’s no pill to make our cognitive biases magically disappear.
- Swift DL, Johannsen NM, Lavie CJ, Earnest CP, Church TS. The role of exercise and physical activity in weight loss and maintenance. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2014;56(4):441-447.
- Onakpoya I, Posadzki P, Ernst E. The efficacy of glucomannan supplementation in overweight and obesity: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Am Coll Nutr2014;33(1):70-78.
- Zalewski BM, Chmielewska A,Szajewska H. The effect of glucomannan on body weight in overweight or obese children and adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition 2015;31(3):437-442.
- FTC settles claims with marketers of FiberThin and Propolene. Federal Trade Commission. www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2005/06/ftc-settles-claims-marketers-fiberthin-and-propolene. Published June 20, 2005. Accessed October 24, 2017.