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Researchers Play Mind Tricks to Help Dieters Lose Weight

By Rosie Mestel
Los Angeles Times

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 event never happened.

In a paper published in Tuesday's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team said it successfully turned people off strawberry ice cream and, in earlier studies, it has done the same with pickles and hard-boiled eggs — in each case, by manipulating the subjects to believe the foods made them sick when they were children.

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.

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

Forty-seven students, however, were 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 that they had been sickened by the treat and that they intended to avoid it.

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

Weight-control experts expressed interest in the study, but were skeptical about using implanted memories as a dieting technique.

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

The food studies are the latest in a string of memory experiments by Loftus, a professor of psychology and criminology at UC Irvine.

Loftus is most famous for her position on recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Based on her work, she has suggested that most of these memories were probably false.