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Disinhibition

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Disinhibition

According to the Health Survey, obesity affects 28% of adults in the UK as of 2019. Another 36.2% of adults are overweight. This means that more than half of the population is at a healthy weight and at least a quarter are obese a frightening figure considering the consequences of obesity.

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.

This article will explain some theories that tackle the issue of obesity and disinhibition, such as the boundary model and restraint theory.

Disinhibition Obesity StudySmarterObesity, Flaticon

What is the boundary model?

Herman and Polivy (1984) developed the boundary model to explain how restrained eating can result in obesity.

This model suggests our food intake is 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 place their boundaries based on their intake restriction, usually some distance from where they would be comfortable 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 person eats well beyond their satiety limit once they have exceeded their 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, i.e., cognitive factors control more of their eating behaviour than that of unrestricted eaters.

Disinhibition Herman and Polivy 1983 Boundary Model StudySmarterHerman and Polivy (1983) figure of the boundary model¹

What is 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 where 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.

Herman and Mack (1975)

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 milkshakes they had drunk.

This 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.

What is disinhibition?

Disinhibition (or counter-regulation effects) is a lack of ability to control behaviour, often characterised by an individual acting on impulses and disregarding consequences; they give up and have an all or nothing attitude to eating.

When we’re studying eating behaviour, disinhibition can greatly affect how a person eats. As explained above, episodes of disinhibition often follow periods of restrained eating. In those episodes, the individual will eat as much as they want, disregarding negative consequences such as stomach pain, nausea, and discomfort.

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.

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 that 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 episodes of disinhibition, individuals end up consuming large amounts of calories, which can cause them to gain weight. As a result, disinhibition can be a factor in the onset of obesity.

Disinhibition Weight Gain StudySmarterWeight gain, Flaticon

How strong is this explanation of obesity?

Let’s look at some strengths and limitations of this explanation of obesity.

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 be a disinhibitor for 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. In a sample of 163 women, they found that those characterised as restrained eaters lost more weight over a six-year period than those who were not. This finding contradicts the ideas within 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

  • Restraint suggests people who restrict their food intake are more likely to overeat than those who do not.
  • 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.
  • Episodes of disinhibition often follow periods of restrained eating, wherein the individual will eat as much as they want, disregarding negative consequences such as stomach pain, nausea and discomfort.
  • The boundary model suggests that our food intake is 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.
  • Once they surpass their restriction boundary (or diet boundary), restrained eaters will often experience what Herman and Polivy call the ‘what the hell effect’. The individual will eat way past their satiety boundary once passed their restriction boundary.

¹Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, A boundary model for the regulation of eating. Psychiatric Annals, 1983

Frequently Asked Questions about Disinhibition

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

Disinhibited behaviour in eating is where a person has passed a self-imposed threshold in their diets and feel 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.

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

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.

Final Disinhibition Quiz

Question

What is the boundary model?

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Answer

This model suggests that our food intake is 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 either eat or stop eating.

Show question

Question

Who created the Boundary Model?

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Answer

Herman and Polivy (1984) 

Show question

Question

What are the zones of the Boundary Model?

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Answer

Hunger, Satiety, and a biological indifference zone.

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Question

What is the 'What the hell' effect described by Herman and Polivy?

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Answer

The individual will eat way past their satiety boundary once they have passed their restriction boundary, as they hold the belief that since they've 'ruined their diet' anyway, it doesn't matter and they might as well eat whatever they want. 

Show question

Question

What is Restraint Theory?

Show answer

Answer

Restraint theory suggests that people who restrict their food intake are actually 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, and when they fail to stay within this boundary on the scale we discussed above, it can lead to binge eating, which subsequently contributes to obesity.

Show question

Question

What is binge eating?

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Answer

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

Show question

Question

What are restrained eaters characterised as?

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Answer

Restrained eaters are characterised as individuals who deliberately attempt to limit their food intake. 

Show question

Question

How do restrained eaters view food and when they are allowed to eat?

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Answer

These individuals tend to categorize 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. 

Show question

Question

What did Herman and Mack (1975) demonstrate?

Show answer

Answer

Restraint theory was demonstrated in a study conducted by Herman and Mack (1975). 

Show question

Question

What did Herman and Mack (1975) find in their study?

Show answer

Answer

In this study, dieters and non-dieters were given three 'pre-load' conditions, drinking one milkshake, two milkshakes, or nothing at all. They were then given ice cream (an unlimited amount).


Dieters tended to eat more ice cream when they had consumed more milkshakes compared to non-dieters, who ate less ice cream the more milkshakes they had drunk. 


This suggests that disinhibition had occurred.

Show question

Question

What is Disinhibition?

Show answer

Answer

Disinhibition (or counter-regulation effects) is a lack of ability to control behaviour, often characterized by an individual acting on impulses and disregarding consequences - they give up, and have an all or nothing attitude to eating.

Show question

Question

Are periods of restraint followed by episodes of disinhibition?

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Answer

Yes.

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Question

What is cognitive distortion in disinhibited eating?

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Answer

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


This means that restrained eaters will often hold the belief that eating any amount of 'bad' food will ruin their diet, meaning that they may as well eat as much as they want since the damage is already done. 

Show question

Question

What did Wardle and Beales (1988) find?

Show answer

Answer

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

Show question

Question

What did Savage et al. (2009) find?

Show answer

Answer

In a sample of 163 women, those who were characterized as restrained eaters lost more weight over a 6 year period than those who were not. This contradicts the ideas within the restraint theory. 

Show question

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