Self-affirmation, cultural cognition and nutrition

PyschologyToday.com published an article yesterday titled “Why Changing Somebody’s Mind, or Yours, is Hard to Do.”  I maintain that understanding human behavior is under-appreciated when trying to relay nutritional messages to others, so periodically i’ll update with articles like this.  Knowing why people resist new information can be used to take a new approach, and hopefully become more self-aware of bias tendencies as well.

The article is worth the quick read; it discusses theories of self-affirmation and cultural cognition.  The research on self-affirmation suggests we often block factual information as a protective mechanism (to protect self and group identity could be a fitness advantage) when it challenges self integrity.  However some studies suggest that you can limit these defense mechanisms by doing something to get the person/people to self-affirm (remind them of their integrity, feel good) prior to presenting information.  Cultural cognition suggests that we mold our perspectives to groups that we identify best with.  This increases the group strength and influence and makes us feel good with acceptance.  When threats of opposing opinions confront us, we are respond with irrationality.  This is obvious when pondering political and scientific topics.

In a perfect world, only experts would share opinions and those who are not would adjust their perspectives accordingly.  Unfortunately, our human tendencies create for a messy reality of quackery and misinformation, while the true evidence remains elusive except from a small percentage of the population.  We are not wired to be objective and maintaining objectivity is something that takes training/practice and a certain level of intelligence/mindfulness.

Why is this important to nutrition?

There are some studies relevant to health that show people who complete a self-affirmation are more accepting of information.  There are a couple examples here and here.

Online, it may be more difficult to utilize this technique.  Health articles never start in a way that would result in a self-affirmation- it would be quite strange.  It may be one big limitation to the ability of print/internet to change the poor state of nutritional information.  In fact, it could promote people to find websites that are not evidence-based.  This is probably happening, though it may be difficult to gauge which other human tendencies also lead people to poor nutritional sources.

It is sometimes quite evident when political and value frameworks are used to interpret health research.  Cultural cognition may help to explain why there seem to be relationships between the recent paleo-nutrition movement and libertarianism, for example.  A few of them are anthropogenic global warming denialists as well (a survey would be interesting to see what percentage are), even when there is strong science suggesting otherwise.  There are certainly obvious shared belief systems by the main people and it seems their followers are like this as well.  While I certainly think that nutrition needs an evolutionary framework, some of the paleo bloggers take it to a different level by creating their own lifestyle culture based on selective information.  While the idea of paleo nutrition is seemingly good (preliminary research is mostly supportive, and getting people to eat whole foods is great), I do question the objectivity in some of the conclusions they draw and some of the principle assumptions that they stand on.  More on this in later posts.  My point now is simply to highlight these interesting relationships.

Conclusion

We need to be wary of provoking immediate emotional reactions on and offline when discussing nutritional topics, which can be a difficult task.  Self-affirmation can be used as a tool to improve the efficacy of information dissemination, and cultural cognition suggests why people tend to form perceptions depending on group conformance and not necessarily an accurate surveying of the evidence.

  • http://www.hmunca.blogspot.com ABK

    Very nice to hear a rational voice. I have been perplexed by the information selectivity and what seems to be irrational loyalty among people regarding nutritional issues, and had the best explanation of it from a 15 year old, who stated diet is like religion . . . you don’t mess with other people’s beliefs. Its interesting that it gets so emotional and I think it ties into a human morality template, a la Jonathan Haidt.