You Eat Unhealthy Food Today by Selectively Misremembering the Unhealthy Food You Ate Yesterday

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Photo: Photo: Monalyn Gracia/Corbis

Today, at lunch, I had a big rice bowl and chips from Chipotle (straying from my usual indulgence of pizza). I also had a big doughnut for breakfast. To justify the second meal, I framed the first in a certain unrealistic light — namely, that the massive, chocolate- and nut-covered doughnut couldn’t have been that unhealthy, and therefore I had earned a 1,500-calories(ish) lunch. Naturally, when I then stumbled upon a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research explaining exactly this phenomenon, I felt as though it had been written just for (sleepy, doughnut- and rice- and chip-encrusted) me.

It’s a well-established fact that our memory-making equipment is fallible, that we don’t recall the past in anything like an objective manner. Rather, a variety of factors influence how we remember things and can shape those memories in very specific ways. As the authors of this study put it, “for some individuals, memories of past behavior may change depending on what is happening in the present.” Part of their goal was to find out how this extends to indulgences such as eating habits and retail purchases, and their findings may not come as a huge surprise:

The results from four studies demonstrate that impulsive individuals with active self-regulatory goals tend to distort memories of past behavior when faced with an opportunity to indulge in the present. Our findings suggest that they do so in order to license indulgent behavior.

At least we food slobs and impulse shoppers can blame our habits on those pesky, distorting brains of ours.