A few weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times featured a fascinating article: “Why Healthy Eaters Fall for Fries.” I say fascinating because it opened my eyes to exactly why I seem to regularly sabotage my own intent for a healthy diet. Apparently, like most every other human on the planet, I am susceptible to a phenomenon referred to informally as “vicarious goal fulfillment.”
Here’s what happens: You go to a restaurant intending to make a healthy choice, say a garden salad. When you find the item on the menu, you recognize this option as desirable and healthy, and your brain delivers a blissful feeling of goal fulfillment. But…while you’re all pumped up on that wave of positive reinforcement (nice decision!), you then allow yourself to select a double cheeseburger and fries for your actual meal. Your biochemistry has duped you into justifying the worst choice.
This phenomenon of vicarious goal fulfillment (let’s call it VCF) has been verified in several recent studies where fast food restaurants attempted (vainly it seems) to offer more nutritional options. Receipts show that calorie counts and healthy menus made customers’ choices worse, not better. One scary conclusion: “health-conscious eaters are the most susceptible to picking unhealthy items when the menu also has healthy ones.”
At least now I know why, following a healthy breakfast of oatmeal with fruit, health-conscious Larry actually feels fine skipping over the veggies, brown rice, and hummus and choosing a meal of leftover mac & cheese and frozen birthday cake. I justify my bad lunch choice by having already made a good one. Thanks for nothing, VCF.
Sadly, the NYTimes article offered no solutions to vicarious goal fulfillment. Perhaps the first, best step is to simply acknowledge its existence. I wager that we can also finger VCF as responsible for other, less-than-salutary habits. Ever contemplate a refreshing jog, then end up watching “The Shawshank Redemption” for the umpteenth time? Pull out that Nabokov novel, only to find yourself watching cat videos on YouTube?
I thought so….