With levels of obesity increasing, efforts are being made in several of the countries affected to find a way of getting overweight people to stop cramming high calorie food into their mouths on a regular basis.

Diet is a fascinating area, since it’s one in which many people have first hand experience of what I call “the Mind Gap” – the space that exists between the unconscious and conscious mind.  In this case it’s experienced when people make firm commitments to lose weight, commitments that they have with complete (conscious) conviction at the time, then find that after an initial period of success their weight returns to its previous level. 

Sometimes they ascribe their return to greater mass to mystic forces or an underlying medical condition, but more often they realise that they’ve not been sticking to the good intentions they made and, in a distracted moment, have taken it upon themselves to feast on cream cakes and pies in the way that, now they think about it, they pretty much always have.

Nevertheless, this greater opportunity for awareness of “the mind gap”, and the fact that it is frequently the unconscious mind that decides what we push into our mouths, doesn’t always stop regulators and legislators from implementing optimistic appeals to the conscious mind.

Just over a year ago new legislation was passed in a Washington county, that required fast food outlets to display calorie information for their products at the point of purchase. 

The result? Nothing changed.  Comparing the average calorie intake in a store that was forced to display the information with others in different regions that were not showed that the total number of sales and average calories per transaction were exactly the same.  Displaying the infomration made no difference to what people ate.

I imagine that the people behind the legislation will be disappointed, but they shouldn’t be.  Provided that the opportunity is taken to learn and understand why people were unaffected by the additional information, future policy has the chance to be much more effective.

The challenge for legislators, marketing people and everyone else, is to recognise how widespread this phenomenon is: we can appeal to people’s conscious minds all we like.  In the end what matters is what’s happening on the other side of “the mind gap”.

Philip Graves

Source: Mandatory Menu Labelling in One Fast-Food Chain in King County, Washington; Finkelstein et al, American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Vol 40, Issue 2, February 2011

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