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Emotional Eating and the Lipstick Effect

Posted Nov 22 2012 12:00am

What do movies, lipstick, and Tootsie Rolls have in common? They all thrive in difficult economic times. And that connection can teach us a lot about overeating.

In the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the businesses of cosmetics titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein thrived while the economy crashed. After the attacks of 9/11, Estee Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder reported a similar increase in sales and dubbed this the “Lipstick Effect.” In March of 2009, during the global economic crisis, an article appeared in the New York Times, with the headline: “When Economy Sours, Tootsie Rolls Soothe Souls.” The article, which was number one on the Times list of most emailed, shows how the same effect can be seen today with candy.

The movie industry thrived during the 1930s as well. It provided a welcome escape from the reality of what was going on outside. Perhaps more importantly, it was an indulgence in entertainment, which most would consider to be a non-essential activity, but one that could still be affordable even in the most difficult times. Economists call all of these purchases “affordable luxuries” and explain that they are in greater demand as family budgets tighten.

This apparent consumer pattern of using responsible self-indulgence as a counterweight to economic restraint, especially the example of eating more candy, made me think about emotional eating. After all, this phenomenon is not really about economics or lipstick, it’s about human nature. We can experience stress during good economic times too. One way we can counter that stress is to balance it by self-indulgence.

But sometimes we don’t indulge responsibly. Perhaps this is proportionate to the degree of stress we experience, or possibly it’s because we can’t find a more appropriate way to act on the need to indulge reasonably. I believe that for many people this may be the point at which they are most vulnerable to emotional eating.  As I’ve been arguing on this blog, overindulgence in food may serve as a necessary counterweight to offset the experience of having your choices restricted by external factors, whether it’s a controlling boss or a lousy economy.

A new study in Psychological Science by Harvard psychologist Jennifer Lerner and colleagues shows that subjects in an experiment who were exposed to three-minute video clips that induced feelings of sadness were less likely to defer gratification than people who saw videos that were emotionally neutral. It’s not just any negative feelings that will have that effect; people who were exposed to clips that induced feelings of disgust were no more likely to make short-sighted choices than the control group that was exposed to neutral videos.

Why would feelings of sadness have that effect? I can think of a few possibilities, both of which lead me to the same conclusion. One is that induced feelings of sadness are associated with loss, which is an experience beyond our control. The experience of loss limits our freedom to continue enjoying the object of that loss while feelings of disgust have no such effect; disgust repels but it doesn’t limit.

The other possibility is that when exposed to feelings that generate sadness, people may tend to make more of an effort to restrain the display of those emotions than they would feelings of disgust. Either way, feelings of loss or restraint, both of which limit of the freedom to act independently or at least free of perceived pressure, are more likely to reduce the ability to delay gratification.

Ironically, perhaps the greatest cause of stress and deprivation that leads to overeating is dieting! Over the past 20 years, researchers have studied the effects of restraint on eating and have found that those who deprive themselves the most are also most prone to binge eating. It’s kind of like a dam bursting after artificially holding back what would otherwise have been a peacefully flowing stream.

That’s not a bad way to think about the downside of dieting. As most dieters know, reaching your “goal weight” is not even half the battle. It’s keeping the weight off. The feeling of deprivation that’s set up by dieting finds balance through indulgence in the same way that a tough economy increases the sale of lipstick: autonomy, like water, seeks its own level.

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