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Do Consumers Really Have Free Choice? Fast Food and the Physiology of Self-Regulation

By on November 28, 2007 – 1:29 am  13 Comments

Jordan Silberman, MAPP '06 is an MD/PhD student at the University of Rochester where he studies neuroeconomics—the neural basis of decision making. He is currently developing a technique in which brain-computer interface technology is used to promote neural activity that may facilitate self-controlled behavior. Jordan has published articles on psychology, pediatric palliative care, health care communication, bioethics, and proteomics. Full bio.

Jordan's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.

I’m going to give you a choice.

You can either head to your local gym right now and bench press 500 pounds, or you can continue to read this article.

Are you feeling less than entirely autonomous? This is exactly the kind of “choice” that Western food industries have been feeding us for years. Here’s why.

Recent research of Baumeister and colleagues suggests that self-regulation (also known as self-control, will-power, etc.) is like a muscle. Like muscular strength, there are significant individual differences in self-regulatory skill. Like muscular strength, we can increase self-regulatory capacity through exercise. Self-regulation, finally, can be exhausted like a muscle; if we self-regulate too much within a short time period, then we must rest “self-regulatory muscles” until they’ve had time to recover.

It’s important to note that self-regulation, like all other psychological phenomena, is ultimately a physiological process. We know that positive affect is associated with activity in specific regions of the brain.

Self-regulation, similarly, has a physiological basis. Recent work has demonstrated that increased blood sugar levels increase self-regulation, providing preliminary clues regarding the physiology of self-regulation. While we are decades from a comprehensive understanding of self-regulatory physiology, we have enough information to know that self-regulation is as much a physiological process as is muscle contraction.

Just as there are obvious and variable limits on muscular contraction, there must be physiological limits on self-regulation. Westernized food industries have for years justified the unhealthiness of their offerings by invoking consumer choice–if the consumer doesn’t want it, he or she can choose something else.

But the recent research of Baumeister et al. undermines this argument. McDonalds claims that they’re justified in serving Big Macs–which are deadly–because consumers can forego the hamburgers if they choose to. But many consumers simply lack the physiological machinery to do so. The food industry’s argument might be convincing if all consumers had the ability to choose healthy options. But choosing to find healthy foods is, for many people, like choosing to bench press the 500-pound barbell.




Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1994). Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self-Regulation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

Baumeister, R. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books. (Added later)

Benchpress courtesy of jason.lengstorf
Big Mac courtesy of Like-the-Grand-Canyon
Corner Market courtesy of tornatore


  • Jordan,

    Could you say more about the association between blood sugar and self-regulation? Perhaps give a pointer? As a long-term diabetic who has viewed high blood sugar as the enemy for a long time, it’s rather a startling statement.

    It’s also a little hard to relate to your point. Should someone have a quick drink of soda pop before going into MacDonalds to raise the possibility of choosing something more benign? Are you saying there are no relatively benign options? One has to go from no weight lifting to lifting 500 pounds?


  • Christine Duvivier says:

    Hey Jordan,

    Great article, thanks! The blood-sugar issue is new to me, but not a surprise as I consumed extra carbs all last spring as I worked intensely on MAPP papers, etc. I recognize personally the connection you are making between self-regulating activities and the need for higher blood-sugar.

    Your point is well-taken about McD’s — it costs more and takes more effort and energy to seek out healthy food.

    I also appreciate the note about not overdoing self-regulation — we had discussions last year about examples of people who are highly-regulated but not very happy.
    – Christine

  • Doug Turner says:

    Jordan: I heard Baumeister talk about this at the last Positive Psychology Summit. It was very interesting and made a lot of intuitive sense to me. It reminded me of my Mom’s warning: “Never go grocery shopping when you are hungry.” When you are hungry you are depleted and your self-regulation muscles are weak. I think this concept is at the base of many diets that call for multiple small means throughout the day rather than the traditional 2-3. I also remember someone (I think it was Jonathan Haidt)encouraged Baumeister to create the Positive Psychology Diet plan! There might be something to that idea! Nice post. Doug

  • Jeff Dustin says:


    I liked your article about self-reg. Right on! I think especially of our commuter lifestyles and the lack of home economics education these days. I can boil an egg but that’s pretty much the extent of my culinary skill…that and watching Top Chef on Bravo TV. I usually will rush to work with less than 30 minutes remaining and grab something at Tim Horton’s (a Fast Food establishment).

    Yes it is a choice…I could get up earlier. Yes I could make my own horrible tasting breakfast, but it is tastier, easier, quicker, cheaper…in short more efficient to let Tim Horton do it for me. Plus I am using a lot of self-regulation going to work and school at the same time.

    Well thought-out and written article.

  • Marie-Josee Salvas says:

    What a wonderful article! Crisp, clear, vivid, to the point and so, so true! I couldn’t agree with you more! Where natural, light and nutritious foods are available, making the right choices is largely facilitated. Each time I travel abroad, I am impressed by the quality of the food and the portion sizes offered in all types of establishments. Self-regulating then comes naturally. It’s like oiling the machinery and reinforcing its bolts – it gets stronger and runs smoother without requiring extra effort!
    Very well put! Thank you for this article!

  • leosatter says:

    I hope you can help me out. I am trying to get my health under control so starting to eat right is my first step. Do you know where I can purchase quality food online? (that is on the healthy side) I am starting to do all of my shopping online because of various reasons…so I am hoping you can help me out with a suggestion or two.
    So far I have only tried Celebrity foods (which is outstanding by the way)
    I am in desperate need to grow my list of quality services or stores, where I can buy my food from. Thank you and have a great day or night (depending on when you read this. LOL!

  • Dave Shearon says:

    Someone help me out here — this makes me think of the work on default choices (e.g., everyone’s enrolled in the 401K unless you opt out). Who was that? Does it ring a bell with anyone else that it might apply here?

  • jeffdustin says:

    Default choices or automating the decision process is definitley a helpful route. I remember when I was in the military, we were served what they gave us to eat and I lost a lot of weight. Sometimes choice can lead to bad outcomes and restriction can help.

  • Kathryn Britton says:

    Dave, I do remember something from Barry Schwartz about how if you give people too many choices on 401K plans, they postpone making decisions because they aren’t sure what to do — and then often don’t sign up at all. I think that’s in his book about choices.


  • sjm silberman says:

    sjs – makes perfect sense. news to me about glucose levels.

    love you.


    ps – pls fly to philly

  • Wu long tea says:

    Wu long tea…

    The acidic cycle in your body functions in the following way. When you eat foods that produce acid when they are digested, this acid builds up in your body. When the acid is not eliminated in a timely fashion, it can disturb other cells and get in the …

  • Emiliya says:

    Hey Jordan,

    Great article.

    What are your thoughts on the relationship between self-regulation and advertising?

    Reading this I pictured myself walking through Times Square in New York where the self-regulation needed to avoid ALL the flashy signs, the bling and the ads, no wonder the McDonald’s are packed. There is perhaps one or two locations to buy healthy “natural” food along the whole Times Square strip.

    Times Square is a prime location for fast food places.


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