Cognitive Dissonance, Or: How People Convince Themselves That Dude Didn’t Lose Weight Eating McDonalds

Imagine that you believe something very strongly. That “fast food makes you unhealthy and fat”, for example. And then someone comes along and presents you with some evidence that conflicts with that strongly held belief. Lets say that they present the case of a man who lost a large amount of weight and improved his health markers eating nothing but fast food, for instance.

In the above scenario, you would experience an uncomfortable sensation called “Cognitive Dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance is a state of anxiety that occurs when one is confronted with evidence that conflicts with one’s deeply held beliefs. In order to resolve this anxiety, one must either determine that the evidence is false, or examine and change one’s beliefs.

The scenario I presented is, of course, true. There really IS a guy who lost a bunch of weight and improved his health markers eating nothing but fast food (McDonald’s specifically), and it really has throw the internet into a fit of cognitive dissonance. The point of the article I linked is that the guy maintained a calorie deficit and lost weight. Losing weight itself improved his health markers. As the inevitable snowball of cognitive dissonance happened, I sat back and watched, and chuckled a little, because the mental gymnastics people put themselves through to rationalize away evidence never changes. Because, of course, for most people, it is easier to try to rationalize away the evidence than it is to examine and change their beliefs. I’ve written about cognitive dissonance before; the ways people are trying to rationalize away the McDonald’s dude’s weight loss are no different than the ways people have tried to rationalize away my weight loss success in the past (read the post I linked there to read some of the ways, it can get hilarious).

I’ve rounded up some comments from Facebook about the dude-losing-weight-eating-McDonalds story, and am sharing them here (names redacted, of course), explaining the ways people are attempting to rationalize away the evidence they’ve been presented with so they can preserve their belief system.

First, we have the “It only worked because his diet was so bad before” folks.

The message here? The McDonalds diet only worked because his diet was so horrible before that McDonalds was an improvement. It wouldn't work for ME, because my diet is already good.More on the "his diet must have been horrible before" theme.

Then there are the Concern Trolls who are supposedly worried about his health:Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 12.00.06 PMAnother "I didn't read the article, and I'm going to choose to believe McDonalds made him unhealthy so I don't have to examine my belief system".

Neither of these people bothered to read the article in which it was noted that in addition to losing weight, all his health markers improved. Perhaps they purposely avoided reading the article, subconsciously worried that they’d be confronted with more evidence they’d have to try to explain away. Again, these people are telling themselves a story so they can continue believing their narrative in spite of being faced with conflicting evidence. They are rationalizing the evidence away.

These next few are random examples, I’ll explain them individually.

"I can't be bothered to read the article, so I'm going to choose to believe he only ate salads, which I could never do. And besides, [insert something Food Babe told me that has no basis in fact]."“If I read the article, I might find out something I don’t want to know, so I’m going to choose to believe that he lost weight because he only ate salads, and not because he maintained a calorie deficit. Oh, yeah, and McDonalds is poison! I read it on Natural Avocado Babe News!”Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 12.28.40 PM

“I’m going to choose to believe that he lost weight because his gastric system is messed up, and not because he maintained a calorie deficit.”

"I'm a lady. It would never work for me."

“I’m going to choose to believe that this only worked because he is a man, and not because he maintained a calorie deficit. It would never work for me, because I am a woman.”

I'm going to choose to ignore the entire point of the article - that he created a calorie deficit, which yes, ANYONE can do - and play the old 'everyone is different' card, with a side of the irrelevant 'some people can't exercise' trope."

“I’m going to choose to believe this could only work for a small segment of the population (ignoring that EVERYONE will lose weight in a true calorie deficit).”

The exercise bit is legit – some of his improved health markers could be attributed to exercise. But his weight loss was attributed to the calorie deficit he created, which everyone can do.

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 1.37.18 PMTricky! This person is pulling a complete non-sequitur! The article wasn’t about how McDonalds sources it’s food, it was about losing weight via a calorie deficit, and if this commenter had actually read the article they were responding to they would have seen that the author actually EXPLICITLY said “I’m sure someone is going to claim I’m telling people they should eat McDonalds every day”. Ha. Ha. Ha.

This is what’s knows as deflection. Putting someone’s opponent on the defensive using a periferally-related but ultimately specious argument to distract attention from the REAL subject (weight loss via calorie deficit). The person who made this comment didn’t want to confront the fact that dude-lost-weight-eating-fast-food, so they tried to distract themselves, and everyone else, by changing the subject.

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 9.02.27 AMThis is the one that bothers me the most, because upon first reading it sounds almost reasonable (unless you’ve been reading my blog for a while, in which case you probably know exactly how I’m going to respond to it).

Here’s the thing. Yes, there will always be people doing that. And you know what, dear commenter? You don’t need to worry about those people. You only need to worry about your own body and your own plate. In fact. Stop worrying about other people’s bodies and plates. Because it’s not doing anyone any good, and in fact it’s PART OF THE PROBLEM. It may even be PART OF YOUR PROBLEM. See, I doubt you have a perfect body or body image, or a perfect relationship with food. If you did, I don’t think you’d be running around Facebook judging other people’s bodies and diets. So, back off of other people. Eyes on your own plate.

The only person who’s body, and diet, is your business is YOU.

You see what this person has done? They’ve distracted themselves from the affront to their belief system by shifting their attention to judging other people. A handy trope we see all too often in our culture. Can’t examine their beliefs while they’re busy condemning the behavior of others!

To wrap up…

We are human, and it is hard to change our beliefs. We are usually very emotionally attached to our beliefs. But being able to examine our beliefs critically, and to change them if they can’t stand up to that examination, is a sign of intelligence and strength. It’s also really vital to achieving a truly healthy relationship with food, and to improving your body image. If we can’t be honest with ourselves, we can’t ever really start moving past the stories we tell ourselves that keep us trapped in our cycles of disorder. Being unable to examine beliefs in THIS scenario will keep people from understanding that it is calorie balance that determines weight, for example. They will go on believing that it is ALL about fast food/food quality, and not understand why they may not be losing weight on their 100% organic diet.

It’s hard and frequently painful. But learning to think critically about our belief systems is such an important part of growing stronger as individuals.


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