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Christmas overeating or overspending may mean you have the "ostrich problem"

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Overeating during Christmas

As Christmas draws near and festive goodies spread cheer, waistlines get tight and pocketbooks get light. Tis the season of overeating and overspending, which a new study refers to as the "ostrich problem" if the person intentionally fails to monitor their overindulgence.

However, you don’t have to fall into the overindulgence trap, say psychologists who found you can prevent eating and spending too much during the holidays by setting goals and tracking your progress on a weekly basis.

The psychologists, who are from the University of Sheffield in the UK, are in the middle of conducting the new study to determine how monitoring progress can influence a person's ability to achieve a goal.

Earlier studies have found that keeping track of progress (e.g. weekly weigh-ins to monitor weight) can help a person succeed in reaching their goals, such as sticking to a diet during the holidays or not going over a Christmas list budget.

According to psychologists, a lot of people overeat and overspend this time of year. It’s called the “ostrich problem” because – like ostriches – such people intentionally bury their heads in the sand and fail to monitor their overindulging on purpose.

Why do people with the “ostrich problem” do this?

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The new study, published in the journal Social and Personality Psychology Compass, explains that a person who sticks their head in the sand may do so deliberately to avoid tracking progress in an attempt to prevent them from knowing how much they’re overindulging.

Study leader Dr. Thomas Webb used the example of a person not checking their bank balance or intentionally not looking at the calories on the labels of fattening holiday foods, despite wanting to be in control of their money and what they eat to lose weight.

Dr. Webb said that this new study suggests there is an “ostrich problem” to the extent that it causes some people to avoid the reality about their overindulgences this time of year.

He pointed out that there may be practical reasons why people do this. For example, the information on nutrition labels may be confusing and hard to understand, or people may not realize how much they're actually spending because they put some of their purchases on credit cards while paying cash for others.

Dr. Webb says that the study’s findings reveal that people can also be motivated to avoid monitoring information because the “ostrich problem” is an idea that there are times when some people would prefer to not know what they're doing.

Such people therefore avoid monitoring in an effort to escape the negative feelings that are linked to an accurate assessment of their progress (e.g. not wanting to know how much money they’ve spent).

"Many of the ways in which people defend themselves against threats - and here, one might view acknowledging poor goal progress as a threat to self-integrity - are the result of unintentional biases," the psychologists said.

SOURCE: ‘The Ostrich Problem’: Motivated Avoidance or Rejection of Information About Goal Progress, Thomas L. Webb, Betty P. I. Chang, Yael Benn, published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, December 2013