Disinhibition

Disinhibition refers to a loss of control over the food we consume. If you have ever been on a diet, you probably know how it feels to have your self-control put to a test. When we’re presented with our favourite food or just feeling stressed or emotional, it is easy to eat more than usual. But can disinhibition become a pattern and affect our health? 

Disinhibition Disinhibition

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Table of contents

    Disinhibition, Content Warning, StudySmarter

    According to the Health Survey, obesity affects 28% of adults in the UK as of 2019. Another 36.2% of adults are overweight. Obesity has been linked to genetic, environmental and psychological factors; in this article, we’ll focus on the latter and explore the concept of disinhibition.

    • First, we’ll talk about the disinhibition meaning and present disinhibited behaviour examples.
    • Next, we’ll discuss how the boundary model explanation of obesity.
    • Then, we’ll introduce the restraint theory as an explanation of obesity.
    • Finally, we’ll evaluate the theories of obesity that account for the disinhibition effect.

    Disinhibition, Woman holding a ball of food, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Disinhibition around food has been linked to obesity.

    What is the Disinhibition Meaning?

    Disinhibition (or counter-regulation effects) is a lack of ability to control behaviour, often characterised by an individual acting on impulses and disregarding consequences. These individuals give up and have an all-or-nothing attitude toward eating. When studying eating behaviour, disinhibition can significantly affect how a person eats.

    During an episode of disinhibition, the individual will eat as much as they want, disregarding negative consequences such as stomach pain, nausea, and discomfort.

    Episodes of disinhibition often follow periods of restrained eating.

    A type of cognitive distortion, known as ‘all-or-nothing’ or ‘black-and-white’ thinking, causes disinhibition. Restrained eaters will often believe eating any amount of ‘bad’ food will ruin their diet, meaning they may as well eat as much as they want since the damage is already done. They see no point in stopping, even if they feel ill or uncomfortable.

    A cognitive distortion is an irrational or illogical pattern of thinking that often exacerbates negative thoughts.

    By repeatedly experiencing these disinhibition episodes, individuals consume large amounts of calories, which can cause them to gain weight. As a result, disinhibition can be a factor in the onset of obesity.

    Disinhibited Behaviour Examples

    People who restrict their food intake are more susceptible to food-related cues, such as the smell of pastries as they walk past a bakery or an advert on television for their favourite fast food. These cues can trigger episodes of disinhibition in which they eat completely unrestricted, leading to binge eating.

    An example of disinhibited eating behaviour would be having some chocolate and then having a large number of other sweets since you’ve already ‘failed’ at ‘healthy’ eating.

    The Boundary Model

    Numerous issues can arise from being overweight. Considering how many people are affected, psychologists have been trying to understand why obesity occurs and why it has become such a problem.

    Two psychological theories of obesity focus on the concept of disinhibition; these include the boundary model and restraint theory.

    Herman and Polivy (1983)1 developed the boundary model to explain how restrained eating can result in obesity.

    The boundary model suggests our food intake depends on where we are on a spectrum, from hunger to satiety, upon which we have certain boundaries of how much and how little we will eat.

    When we enter the far ends of this spectrum, we are motivated to eat or stop eating.

    If we have not eaten enough, we pass the hunger boundary on the spectrum, motivating us to eat something. We should then pass the satiety boundary as we’re eating, encouraging us to stop eating before we become uncomfortably full.

    In the middle of these spectrums are zones of biological indifference, wherein we do not experience any biological motivations regarding food. Cognitive factors mostly control our eating whilst in this zone.

    Restrained eaters are likely to control their food intake boundaries based on their intake restriction, usually some distance from where they would be comfortably satiated.

    Once they have exceeded their restriction limit (or diet limit), restrained eaters often experience what Herman and Polivy call the ‘what the hell effect’.

    The what the hell effect results in the person eating well beyond their satiety limit once they have exceeded their restriction limit. They believe it does not matter since they have ‘ruined their diet’ anyway. They might as well eat what they want.

    The idea that these restrained eaters also have a larger zone of biological indifference further exacerbated this. Cognitive factors control more of their eating behaviour than that of unrestrained eaters.

    Restraint Theory

    Restraint theory suggests that people who restrict their food intake are more likely to overeat than those who do not due to passing self-imposed cognitive boundaries. The individuals attempt to change their eating behaviour cognitively rather than physiologically. When they fail to stay within this boundary on the scale we discussed above, it can lead to binge eating, contributing to obesity.

    Binge eating is when you eat a large amount of food in a short amount of time, which can cause stomach pain and distress.

    Social, environmental, and psychological factors affect the range between minimum hunger levels and maximum satiety levels. Restrained eaters deliberately attempt to limit their food intake. These individuals tend to categorise foods into black-and-white categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and create rules about how, when and what they will allow themselves to eat.

    This control is cognitive; by thinking about their food intake, they attempt to control their eating, which is usually an attempt to control their body size.

    Due to the individual’s food consumption no longer being controlled by physiological factors but rather by cognitive ones, the restrained eater is less able to tell when they are hungry and full, which often results in overeating or binging.

    Disinhibition, woman choosing between a dessert and an apple, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Restrained eaters deliberately attempt to limit their food intake. These individuals tend to categorise foods into black-and-white categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad.

    Herman and Mack (1975) demonstrated the restraint theory in their study. In this study, dieters and non-dieters had three ‘pre-load’ conditions, drinking one milkshake, two milkshakes, or nothing at all. They then had ice cream (an unlimited amount). Dieters tended to eat more ice cream when they consumed more milkshakes than non-dieters, who ate less ice cream the more they drank.

    The finding suggests disinhibition, as drinking the milkshake had caused the dieters to pass their cognitive diet boundary, so they ‘gave up’ and failed to eat within their satiety and hunger ranges. It is an all-or-nothing mentality.

    Disinhibition Effect: Evaluation

    Let’s consider the studies that support and show the limitations of theories of obesity that account for the disinhibition effect.

    Strengths

    Wardle and Beales (1988) conducted a study into the validity of the restraint theory.

    They separated 27 obese women into three groups.

    • One group was placed on a restricted diet,
    • one group followed an exercise regime,
    • and the final group was used as a control and received no interventions.

    The researchers found that, out of the three groups, the restricted diet group ate the most food over the seven weeks in the study due to episodes of disinhibition leading to binge eating.

    Boyce and Kuijer (2014) found that, when exposed to images of thinness (e.g., thin models in advertisements), restrained eaters would eat more when offered food than unrestrained eaters. This finding suggests these images may disinhibit restrained eaters. The study also supports the theory, showing that disinhibition can affect food intake.

    Weaknesses

    Savage et al. (2009) conducted a longitudinal study into restrained eating. A sample of 163 women found that those characterised as restrained eaters lost more weight over a six-year period than those who were not. This finding contradicts the predictions of the restraint theory.

    Some research demonstrates that restriction may be more complex than Herman and Mack suggested. Studies have found different types of restrictive eating, such as rigid restriction (where eaters entirely avoid ‘forbidden’ foods) or flexible restriction (where ‘forbidden’ foods are allowed in small amounts). Some research suggests that only rigid restriction leads to disinhibition and subsequent weight gain.


    Disinhibition - Key takeaways

    • The disinhibition meaning (or counter-regulation effects) is a lack of ability to control behaviour, often characterised by an individual acting on impulses and disregarding consequences.
    • Restraint theory suggests people who restrict their food intake are more likely to overeat than those who do not.
    • These individuals tend to categorise foods into black-and-white categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and create rules about how, when and what they will allow themselves to eat.
    • The boundary model suggests that our food intake depends on where we are on a spectrum, from hunger to satiety.
    • Once they surpass their restriction boundary (or diet boundary), restrained eaters will often experience what Herman and Polivy call the ‘what the hell effect’.

    References

    1. Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, A boundary model for the regulation of eating. Psychiatric Annals, 1983
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Disinhibition

    What are the three causes of disinhibition?

    Disinhibition can occur because of stress, exposure to tempting food, and failure to adhere to self-imposed cognitive boundaries.

    What is a disinhibited behaviour?

    Disinhibited behaviour in eating is where a person has passed a self-imposed threshold in their diet and feels like they have failed. They subsequently enter an all-or-nothing approach and overeat by 'giving up'. They struggle to identify hunger and satiety cues because of this.

    What is a disinhibition example? 

    Overeating or binging after failing to stay within self-imposed dietary restrictions.

    What is the restraint theory? 

    Restraint theory suggests that people who restrict their food intake are more likely to overeat than those who do not due to passing self-imposed cognitive boundaries.

    What are two types of disinhibition?

    There are two types of disinhibition in the context of online communication, benign, which involves empathy and emotional expression, and toxic disinhibition, which involves aggressive communication.

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