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'Shortcuts' of the mind lead to miscalculations of weight and caloric intake, says Penn study
Date:6/15/2009

PHILADELPHIA - Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania have identified a cognitive shortcut, or heuristic, they call "Unit Bias," which causes people to ignore vital, obvious information in their decision-making process, points to a fundamental flaw in the modern, evolved mind and may also play a role in the American population's 30 years of weight gain.

Researchers who focus on the cognitive aspects that contribute to obesity conducted several studies with college-age participants in which the subjects were asked to estimate the weight of adult women from either photographs or a live presentation by models. Other student participants were asked to estimate the calories in one of two actual meals. Both meals contained the same foods, but one had larger portion sizes than the other.

The results demonstrated that when estimating the body weight of women, participants apparently disregard or ignore the provided height information and focus solely on the width of the model. In certain instances, researchers would inflate the provided height information of the models as much as 10 inches, though that did not alter participants' estimates of the models' weights.

When estimating calories, study participants assumed portion sizes were culturally typical and guessed no caloric differences between small and large portions.

The findings are akin to asking a room full of people to calculate the volume of a box when given only the height and width and no one asks for the length. Or, more accurately, the length is provided and no one pays attention to that one, crucial dimension, thereby making it impossible to arrive at the correct answer.

The study suggests that there are situations where critical dimensions to understanding are devalued or ignored. The paper examines different circumstances discovered by researchers where single dimensions dominate multidimensional judgments. In these studies specifically, participants
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Contact: Jordan Reese
jreese@upenn.edu
215-573-6604
University of Pennsylvania
Source:Eurekalert

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