Please. Save me from people who've been told what to like and then like it.
-- George Carlin
July 11, 2008 -- Would you lie to your family to get them to eat healthier foods?
It just might work, shows a study led by famed false-memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine.
In two experiments involving 231 college students, Loftus and colleagues were able to convince half the participants that, as children, they had loved asparagus -- even though these students at first said they were pretty sure this was not true.
And this false memory had consequences. Compared to people without the false memory, these "believers" then said they liked asparagus better, wanted to eat asparagus more, were willing to pay more for asparagus, and found pictures of asparagus more appealing and less disgusting.
"All in all, we think this is kind of an intriguing prospect for influencing nutritional choices and moving people toward healthy foods or away from unhealthy foods," Loftus tells WebMD. "If you could refine this and get it ready for mass marketing, we might be on the brink of a new dieting technique."
The Loftus experiments were based on an elaborate ruse. Study participants were told that they were part of a study of food preferences and personality. They then completed a 24-item food-history questionnaire in which they reported how certain they were that they had various food experiences.
One of the items was "Loved asparagus the first time you tried it." Only those who were relatively confident this didn't happen were included in the study analysis. Participants were also given questionnaires in which they rated their desire to eat 32 different dishes (including asparagus), how likely they would be to order these dishes from a mock restaurant menu if they were out for a special dinner, and how much they would pay for foods in a grocery store. In a second, similar experiment, participants also rated how appetizing or disgusting they found certain photographs of foods (including a bunch of asparagus).
A week later, participants came back for "feedback" on their responses. They were told that a sophisticated computer program had generated an analysis of their early childhood food experiences. Half of the participants were told -- falsely -- that as children they loved to eat cooked asparagus.
Participants were then questioned about the settings and experiences they remembered regarding these childhood food experiences. In each of the two experiments, about half of the students falsely believed or falsely remembered they had loved asparagus as children.
"We got a number of people to buy into this suggestion and to elaborate on it, and those people now want to eat asparagus more," Loftus says.
In earlier experiments, Loftus and colleagues used similar ruses to make people believe that foods such as hard-boiled eggs, dill pickles, or strawberry ice cream had made them ill as children. As a result, they were less likely to eat these foods. Now the new studies show it's possible to plant false memories that drive people to choose foods instead of to reject them.
Planting False Memories for Health: Right or Wrong?
Planting false memories is based on lying to people.
"Should we be having people lie to other people even for their own good? Is that a good idea?" Loftus asks. "It is a little hard to think of how you might have a professional psychologist interacting with a client in this way. A therapist isn't supposed to lie to clients, even if it is for their own good. But there's nothing to stop a parent from trying something like this with an overweight child or teen."
Some people, Loftus admits, are "really uncomfortable" with this idea.
"I say to them, give me a break. What about telling children about the tooth fairy and Santa Claus?" she says. "A white lie that might get them to eat broccoli and asparagus vs. a lifetime of obesity and diabetes: Which would you rather have for your kid?"
Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, WebMD's director of nutrition, is all for this idea. She says telling children they used to love to eat spinach isn't very different from the trick of sneaking pureed vegetables into kids' foods, or of hiding grated carrots in the meatloaf.
"It is a very personal choice here, but getting kids and even adults to eat healthier foods is difficult, and nutritionists have been challenged to come up with new techniques," Zelman says. "This puts another tool in our toolbox to help people. You are, after all, trying to get people to do something good for them. We are not trying to create monsters."
Loftus and Zelman are quick to point out that while it may be possible to plant false memories that influence food preferences, it's not clear how long these effects last.
Loftus notes that it's harder to plant a false memory of a food dislike in people who eat that food regularly and easily remember how much they enjoy it. And while it's tempting to think from these experiments that parents really could influence their kids' food choices with a white lie, there's no proof -- yet -- that this actually works outside the lab.
Loftus and colleagues report their findings in the current issue of Experimental Psychology.