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This article was the feature article in the tenth issue of "Coffee With Jim".

Take Credit When You Lose Weight, Pass The Buck When You Gain!

Here's a good question:

"How should we interpret diet-related events?"

When we lose weight who or what is responsible for the weight loss?

Should we take credit? Is the diet responsible? Is it just a matter of luck?

When we gain weight who or what is responsible for that?

When we gain or lose weight, we have many interpretive options, it seems.

When we interpret an event one way rather than another, it's like putting one kind of picture frame around it, rather than another. And that can change our feelings about the event entirely.

Which way should we frame our diet-related events, like gaining and losing weight?

Which way of framing things is most helpful for us?

Are some ways of framing these events apt to discourage us?

Will some interpretations help us succeed on our diets?

I want to consider the advice of two doctors. One is a tall, Southern doctor who became famous with a little help from his friend Oprah Winfrey. I mentioned the other doctor in last month's newsletter.

You've probably guessed that the first doctor is Dr. Phil McGraw. The second is Dr. Robert Sapolsky, who has written Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers -- a great book about stress.

I have a lot of respect for both doctors. Let me say that first. But it turns out that these two gentlemen seem to be giving advice that conflicts a little bit, and I'm going to try to sort it all out here, because the issue involved is very important for dieters.

Dr. Phil's Locus of Control Model

Have you heard? Dr. Phil has written a diet book. It's a pretty good book, too, though it would be much better if he supported a low carb diet :)

In the book he talks about our interpretation of diet-related events--like gaining and losing weight. And Dr. Phil says that we can look at these events primarily in one of three ways.

We can have, what he calls, an INTERNAL locus of control. Or we can have an EXTERNAL locus of control. Or we can have a CHANCE locus of control. In other words, we can believe that most events in our lives are caused by us. Or we can believe that something in the environment, perhaps another person, is responsible. Or we can largely believe it is a matter of chance or luck whether things happen or not.

If someone has an Internal locus of control, she is likely to take responsibility when she gains weight, and take it to be her own fault. But this person will also take great pride when she loses weight, because she will think that, that too, is a result of her own efforts.

If someone has an External locus of control, she is likely to blame the environment, or other people, when she gains weight. And she is likely to give credit to others when she loses weight. "It was the diet."

If someone has a Chance locus of control, she is likely to attribute both weight loss and weight gain to chance, fortune, luck, or fate.

Dr. Phil says that, all things considered, it is better to have an internal locus of control. This has the best chance of leading to success, because it reminds us that we have to take action if we are going to lose weight.


Now for Dr. Sapolsky.

Traditionally it has been held that, in order to reduce stress, it is good to have a sense of control, and to be fully informed with timely information. But Dr. Sapolsky considers a couple of examples where these general rules break down.

Suppose, for example, you are facing your first examination as a grad student or something, and you are already quite nervous. Now suppose your friend comes along and says: "I just heard that they are really going to be hard on you, absolutely rake you over the coals." How? "I don't know, I couldn't find out that part." (Sapolsky, 329)

This is a case where more information actually increases stress.

Or suppose you are given the power to decide the border between India and Pakistan, as Cyril Radcliffe was. (Sapolsky, 330) No matter where you draw the line, you will get death threats, and be responsible for a hundred thousand deaths.

This is a case where having more control over a situation will increase stress, too.

Here is the point. Whether control is a good thing or not depends on the outcome. If the outcome is good, or is anticipated to be good, it's good to feel in control. If it is anticipated to be bad, it can be more stressful to be in control. It would feel better not to have to take the blame for all the bad results.

A Crucial Distinction

When Dr. Phil suggests we should choose an internal locus of control, he suggests it carte blanche.

In other words, we should attribute the cause to self whether the outcome is good or bad.

But here's the catch. When we gain weight, an internal attributional style will lead to feelings of shame or guilt, and this will produce stress. This stress, as we learned last week, could cause us to crave carbohydrates, which will make us more likely to fail even more.

Maybe, then, we would be better off having an external orientation when we gain weight.

Dr. Phil seems to think that if we have an internal locus of control, we must be consistent and have an internal locus of control whether things are good or bad.

I want to suggest that we don't have to be consistent in this way. I wan't to suggest, in line with Dr. Sapolsky's work, that we should have a different orientation in different situations.

When we are gaining weight, we should attribute the weight gain to external causes. And when we are losing weight, we should attribute that to internal causes.

If I gain weight, it's the stress others are putting on me, or it's the lack of sleep I've been getting, or the fact that others brought cake into work, that's causing me to make poor choices. If I lose weight, then good for me. I pulled it off. I did it. I should be proud.

Isn't this hypocritical?

Does this sound too much like having your cake and eating it too, so to speak? Does it sound hypocritical to take responsibility only for the good, and not for the bad as well?

I think it would be hypocritical if you allowed yourself to have this kind of mixed outlook, but criticized others for having it. But there's no reason to do that. If this kind of outlook would prove most helpful for weight loss, and you are prepared to let others have this kind of outlook without criticizing them, then I don't see any reason why you shouldn't help yourself to this more helpful orientation toward your diet-related events.

Here's why it's important for us to attribute weight gain to external causes. It allows us to be curious instead of feeling guilty. It allows us to wonder why we gained weight instead of beating ourselves up for it. And when we get curious, we are much more likely to find a way to solve our problem, than when we feel guilty.

But how do you get yourself to attribute bad events to external causes, and good events to your own hard work? It's easier than you think. Consider a couple of examples from other areas of our lives.

The Weight Loss Video Game

Have you ever learned how to play a video game? Have you ever learned how to play a musical instrument? Have you ever mastered a difficult subject in school? My guess is that you have.

Now, let me ask you. When you couldn't play a classical masterpiece after one week of piano lessons, did you feel guilty? Did you beat yourself up and say, "it's my fault I can't play it?"

My guess is that you did not do this.

Instead you said, "the reason I can't play a classical masterpiece after one week of piano lessons is that the piece is very difficult and requires years of practice". In other words, it was something about the external environment that prevented your playing the piece.

Now, let's say after two years of lessons you finally played a pretty decent version of some masterpiece. Were you proud of yourself? Most likely you were, and you should have been.

It's easy in many cases to blame external forces for failure and give credit to ourselves for success. And it can be quite appropriate to do so, too.

If an adolescent wants to dunk a basketball, but can't jump high enough, the reason she can't dunk is that the hoop is too high, or her muscles aren't strong enough yet, or she is too short, or something like that. And that tells her what she has to do if she wants to dunk.

She should lower the hoop, of course!

Or she could try to build her leg muscles and practice a lot :)

Would the pianist get any better by simply feeling guilty and trying harder?

Would the would-be dunker get better that way?

Perhaps a little. But progress would probably be slower than necessary.

Overcoming failure requires creativity. It requires us to figure out the cause of our failure. It might be just that we have to try harder, but it is even more likely that there are some additional external things we can change that will make our success more likely.

Someone with an internal locus of control is likely to miss many of these other factors. Someone with an external locus of control is likely to discover more factors that will lead to success.

[I should point out here that Dr. Phil would probably agree with much of this. He does encourage dieters to "get curious" when they fail. And he does consider external factors to be very important for successful weight loss. I just want to suggest that his emphasis on an internal locus of control is a little at odds with these other emphases.]

So here is my exhortation to you. Stop beating yourself up for being overweight! Pass the buck when you fail, but take credit when you succeed.

Think of it being like a video game. The game is stacked against you in various ways. But you can figure it out. You can eventually get to the next level of the weight loss video game. You just have to figure out how to defeat the monsters that stand in your way. They'll get you sometimes, and you'll have to start over. But you will learn something every time that happens, and eventually you will succeed.

And when you get to the next level, make sure to call all your friends and brag a little.

Jim Stone is the author of "Stop Cheating
On Your Low Carb Diet!", found at
Jim also offers a free monthly newsletter at


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