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Controlling the Emotional Thermostat

Posted Oct 15 2012 12:00am

In the previous post, I talked about striving for total abstinence – diet perfection – and the consequences of that by rebelling against those self-imposed limits. But why the fuss? Why not simply accept the restrictions on your eating if that’s what you want to do? What determines the need to rebel against those limits and why must the reaction be so extreme? Most importantly, how can understanding how this balance works help with emotional eating?

All living things need a balanced and stable internal environment in order to live and function normally. This state of balance is called homeostasis, a term coined in 1915 by the American physiologist Walter Cannon, who explained how this process works. This mechanism, first described by the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard, is found in all biological systems to automatically regulate physiological processes such as body temperature, hormone secretion, and blood pressure.

At the end of his book, Cannon wrote an appendix that explained how this mechanism of biological regulation may apply to systems other than animal organisms. “Might it not be useful,” he wrote, “to examine other forms of organization – industrial, domestic, or social – in light of the organization of the body?” He then goes on to demonstrate how homeostasis operates in a wide range of organizational systems. Others have extended the principles of homeostasis to explain behavioral and emotional regulation as well.

Freud began writing about homeostasis and its role in motivation at around the same that Cannon was first publishing these ideas. He believed that when an instinctual need is unsatisfied or suppressed, it can activate behavior that will gratify it. Once that need is met, a state of balance is restored. Similar ideas were suggested by other researchers such as Clark Hull who said that behavior is motivated by the need to restore balance when biological drives arise, such as thirst and hunger.

However, the prominent social psychologist Bernard Weiner, one of the world’s preeminent authorities on human motivation and emotion rejected homeostasis as a factor in human motivation [2] . He wrote, “Both conceptions [i.e., Freud’s and Hull’s] are grounded on the notion that individuals strive to reduce internal tension; their fundamental motivational principle is that any deviation from equilibrium produces a motivational force to return to the prior state of internal balance.”

Weiner explained his objection to this view of motivation: “The major difficulty with this rule of conduct is that the greater part of human behavior cannot be subsumed within the concept of homeostasis. Humans often strive to induce states of disequilibrium: we ride roller coasters, read scary stories, [and] seek new and exciting forms of entertainment…”

In other words, in Weiner’s view, homeostasis requires the maintenance of a natural state of tension-free complacency undisturbed by any intrusive stimulation. Therefore, the fact that people often seek out experiences such as horror movies or bungee jumping proves that motivation cannot be based on homeostasis. It’s just too upsetting! He then proposed a set of principles which any theory of motivation must follow. His first rule was that “a theory of motivation must be based on a concept other than homeostasis.”

Or not.

With this declaration, Weiner sets up a straw man, boldly knocks it down, and then pronounces it dead. He takes the fact that people engage in this behavior as proof that our behavior cannot be motivated by homeostasis. Why? Because it disrupts complacency. Sure it does – but who said we’re always feeling complacent? That’s like saying that you don’t want to wear a winter coat because it makes you feel hot. Well, yeah, if it’s mid-July or you were indoors at the time it would cause a state of “disequilibrium” in your comfort, but not if you’re standing outdoors in a Chicago winter! Then you’ll wear whatever you can find that makes you as warm as possible.

Of course, we could far more logically conclude that the fact that we seek out highly stimulating experiences proves that his idea homeostasis means maintaining complacency is simply a misunderstanding. It means stability. Balance doesn’t mean you’re always feeling calm; it just means both sides of the scale have equal weight. As any kid in a playground can tell you, a see-saw is just as stable when two kids are on opposite ends as when they are both in the middle. Perhaps you also watch “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to offset interminable boredom and keep the needle on your stimulation gauge right in the middle.

In fact, as psychologist Goodwin Watson pointed out almost 20 years before Weiner’s rejection of homeostasis, the concept that we are “naturally complacent unless disturbed by intrusive stimuli has had to be modified…because of contradictory evidence showing a hunger for stimulation.” Fifty years before that, American sociologist William Thomas proposed the “desire for new experiences” as a basic motivation for human behavior This can explain why a healthy fear of the unknown, like falling off the edge of the earth, does not dissuade us from exploring the world outside of our comfort zones.

If we accept homeostasis as a motivating force to arouse certain strong emotions by engaging in extreme behavior, then the goal would be to compensate for a perceived imbalance. For example, one may have a need for excitement to counter a feeling of boredom or a desire for new experiences to escape from routine. By temporarily going to the opposite extreme, one may actually be restoring balance – not, as Weiner would have it, upsetting it.

When it comes to emotional eating, the extreme behavior may be seen as a way of restoring balance as well. If that’s the case, it would be useful to understand what emotions the behavior is trying to counterbalance. What are we experiencing on the opposite side of the see-saw that motivates us to counteract to it? Cannon wrote, “When a factor is known which can shift a homeostatic state in one direction it is reasonable to look for…factors having an opposite effect.” That means you look at the behavior and think about how you feel just prior to engaging in it. That’s the feeling that triggered it. Then figure out what that feeling is meant to fix.

The overriding feeling that people describe just after deciding to binge is a sense of relief. It occurs when you say something to the effect of “Oh, what the hell!” That relief means you’ve decided to let go after exerting a lot of self-control and restraint. If the relief comes from abandoning self-restraint, the burden must have come from feeling too restrained.

When your sense of freedom and autonomy is restricted, and you don’t feel you can challenge it by, say, standing up to your boss or saying no to a friend, then you may be tempted to look for some other rules to break. That’s when turning to your own self-imposed rules like “no snack foods shall ever pass my lips” can come in handy as an easy target for defiance, without actually affecting anyone else. When you eat the bag of chips, balance is (momentarily) restored and no one gets upset with you. Except yourself.

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