cognitive bias and body image
Body Image

Is cognitive bias hurting your body image?

September 27, 2020

Ryann Nicole

Hi, I’m Ryann.

Your Not-So-Average Food Freedom Therapist & Virtual Coach. As a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Certified Nutritionist with a BA in Psychology, and a MA in Professional Counseling, yes I do a little of the "so how does that make you feel".

But my ultimate goal is to provide you with the resources you need, in an easy-to-understand way, on healing your disordered relationship with food and your body. 

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If you feel defeated by the struggle to be optimistic about your body, I feel you. What you might not know is body image is so dang hard to change because our brains literally work against us when we are trying to rewire our thought processes. I was listening to a podcast by Mark Manson the other day, where he discussed all the cognitive biases we as humans have that indirectly make us terrible people, and I had this ah-ha moment. As I was listening to the podcast, all I could think about was how I felt some of these cognitive biases affected my body image more than my character. 

So what the heck is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is essentially an error in our thinking pattern. It is a way for our brains to interpret information fast based on our pre-existing beliefs. Because we might not always have the sanest or most positive pre-existing beliefs, these biases can significantly affect our levels of judgment and insight. This is because our brain processes information that supports our thoughts and filters out information against our beliefs. These cognitive biases are not going to go away. They are a part of being human. However, I believe we can have them work in our favor by understanding them. 

Why does this matter? 

If you believe you are fat, unworthy, and ugly, your brain will highlight information supporting that belief and ignore information showing you are healthy, worthy, and beautiful. As always, the best way to change a behavior is to understand why it is happening in the first place. Below are three common cognitive biases that could be the reason why you're struggling to boost your body image: 

01. Confirmation Bias 

What this is:

This is when our brain only sees the information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. So, this is your brain providing you with more information that only confirms the pre-existing belief you have about your body. For example, when you go to the mall looking for a new pair of jeans, you try on five pairs that are your usual size and one pair where your standard size does not fit, and all you can focus on is that one pair that does not work. Sound familiar?

How to overcome this:

This is not going to change overnight but begin by recognizing all the beliefs you have about your body. Write them down and look at when you started having that belief and why. Ask yourself, “what negative beliefs can I let go of today?” The goal is to get this bias to work for you rather than against you. The more positive beliefs you have about your body, the more information your brain will provide to confirm those positive beliefs. 

02. Negativity Bias 

What this is: 

This is your brain's tendency to notice only what is wrong in every situation. With this cognitive bias, your mind will see what is wrong with your body more often than notice what is right or good about your body. When you look in the mirror, do you see 100 flaws or see your healthy, beautiful, fantastic body? 

How to overcome this: 

You must begin to catch yourself in the negativity. I get it – it is tough to come to a place of body neutrality after you have hated your body for years and years. However, is there one thing you can accept about your body when you look in the mirror today that maybe you didn't see yesterday? As you slowly accept more and more of your body, we can switch this into becoming a positivity bias instead. 

03. Incentive Caused Bias 

What this is: 

This is when you tend to feel good emotions towards things you believe benefit you and feel destructive emotions around what doesn't help you. This incentive-caused bias makes you feel good when you do things that you think support your body and feel destructive emotions around what you believe doesn't benefit your body. This looks like only feeling good emotions towards eating “good” foods, sticking to a diet, working out to burn a ton of calories, and feeling bad about the opposite.

Why is this a problem? Sometimes, things that are good for us (like celebrating somebody's birthday with a birthday cake or missing a workout to spend a little extra time with our loved one) might not fall into your definition of things that benefit your body. Therefore, you feel bad for doing those things. 

How to overcome this: 

To overcome this, you must redefine what you believe benefits your body. This comes down to being less rigid about food and exercise and understanding that our mind also plays a massive role in helping our body. Missing out on birthday cake or extra time with a loved one does not directly benefit our body, but it benefits our mind and soul, which in turn comes back to benefit our body. Take some time to look at what you believe benefits your body and ask yourself, “how can I redefine this?” 

These cognitive biases will not go away because they are part of being human. However, rather than having them work against us, I believe we can change our perspective and beliefs to have them work for us and our body image. This simply comes down to noticing your current thoughts about your body, why you have those beliefs, and what you can do to redefine or change these beliefs. You are unique, beautiful, healthy, talented, and ENOUGH – it is time you start believing that too! 

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