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Little white lies could help in dieting, study finds

By Rosie Mestel

Los Angeles Times

8/2/2005

In their battle against the bulge, desperate dieters have tried drugs, surgery, exercise, counseling, creams and even electrical fat-burning belts.

Now some psychologists have a new idea: lying.

A team led by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, found that it could persuade people to avoid fattening foods by implanting unpleasant childhood memories about the food — even though the events never happened.

In a paper published in today's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Loftus and colleagues at the University of Washington and Kwantlen University College in British Columbia said they successfully turned people off strawberry ice cream by manipulating the subjects to believe it made them sick when they were kids.

The scientists say they also have successfully implanted positive opinions about asparagus by convincing subjects that they once loved the vegetable.

The method, if perfected, could induce people to eat less of what they shouldn't and more of what they should, Loftus said. Good memories about fruits and vegetables could be implanted, along with bad ones about low-nutrient, high-calorie foods.

In the strawberry-ice cream experiment, Loftus and her team asked 131 students to fill out forms about their food experiences and preferences, including questions about their experiences with strawberry ice cream. The subjects then were given a computer analysis of their responses that was supposed to indicate their "true" likes and dislikes.

Forty-seven students, however, were also inaccurately told that the analysis made it clear they had gotten sick from eating strawberry ice cream as a child. Of these, almost 20 percent later agreed on a questionnaire that they, in fact, had been sickened by the treat and that they intended to avoid it in the future.

The findings were stronger in a second experiment in which, in addition to the other steps, students were asked to provide details about the imaginary ice cream episode. In that case, 41 percent of the subjects given erroneous information later believed the tale and said they would avoid the food.

Several weight-control experts expressed interest in the study but skepticism about using implanted memories as a dieting technique.

Michael Strober, professor of psychiatry and director of the eating-disorders program at UCLA's School of Medicine, said that pressures causing people to gain weight are myriad, including rushed lives, high-calorie convenience foods and physical inactivity.

"Such systemic lifestyle issues need to be targeted by something far more comprehensive than implanting false memories," he said.

Deliberately implanting memories also "raises profound ethical questions," said Stephen Behnke, director of the ethics office of the American Psychological Association.

Loftus acknowledged the issue is ethically tricky. But she noted, "People kind of cringe at the idea that anyone would suggest that they lie to their children, but they do it all the time when they tell them Santa Claus exists."