• Robb G. Best

Beware of Angels and Snackwell Cookies

When is the last time you ran into an angel? Not "angle"--we're talking harp, robes, and halo. Well, it turns out you don't have to actually encounter an angel to get the headwear. Neuroscientists coined the term 'halo effect' to describe the irrational behavior that follows when we grant one positive detail too much sway.

According to Kelly McGonigal in The Willpower Instinct, the halo effect is a "form of moral licensing which allows us to say 'yes' to temptation. For example, we feel so good about ordering something healthy, our next indulgence doesn't feel sinful at all. Researchers have found if you pair a cheeseburger with a green salad, diners estimate that the meal has fewer calories than the same cheeseburger served by itself."

It's as if there's a bad angel sitting on our shoulder, waiting to balance the virtuous salad you had for lunch against a Quarter Pounder with cheddar. The heavenly light reflecting from your mixed greens casts a glow over the rest of your plate, which magically makes some of the calories disappear. And the beauty of this misbegotten logic is you actually believe it.

Based on this illusion, diet soda is like a gateway drug to high fat and high sugar indulgences. After all, you saved all those calories with your lite soda; surely you're entitled to spend some of your saved caloric capital elsewhere.

McGonigal explains, "The Snackwell cookie craze of 1992 is a perfect example of this kind of moral licensing. When dieters saw the words 'Fat Free' on the outside of the package, people watching their weight irrationally consumed whole boxfuls of the high-sugar treats, blinded by the light of the fat-free halo."

The brain's ability to decieve itself by creating a false balance once again points out that decision-making is not always rooted in rational thought. Marketers long ago recognized this and have for years exploited us with manipulative words like ' fat free,' and 'sugar free.' This cheap ploy even works with people who are well aware of the calorie count for many foods. Logic be damned, still they sucumb.

What seems like a good choice can end up being the slippery slope for your future bad food gorgefest.

When I think of angels, I don't generally think about deception. Truth be told though, I seldom think about them at all. And now that I ate that cobb salad for lunch, I can start thinking about rewarding myself with a chocolate malt. Maybe it's not supposed to work that way, but I see a strange glow coming off the fake whipped cream topping...


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