“Approach” or “Avoid”: Understanding Eating Behavior from a Behaviorist Approach

Written by Mariya Bershad, BA, and Blair Uniacke, MD.

From intentionally selecting the type of milk that we put into our coffee to grabbing an afternoon snack of trail mix or cookies, our patterns around eating reflect behaviors that we’ve learned at one point or another. How individuals with eating disorders make decisions about what to eat – and how this process may be different from people without an eating disorder – is a critical question in our field. We at Columbia have been interested in this for a long time, and have found in prior research that individuals with anorexia nervosa (AN) consume significantly fewer calories than those without AN, and specifically restrict calories from fat. Because the persistent avoidance of dietary fat can negatively impact recovery, we continue to formulate new questions to try to answer in our studies. 

Why do we study behavior the way we do?

To a psychologist, learning refers specifically to the way we acquire new behaviors. One type of learning is called operant conditioning, in which voluntary behaviors are changed through the use of consequences. This concept of learning by consequence is a useful framework for studying food choice because it enables us to ask how consequences may reward some behaviors while punishing others. We can apply this concept of learning from reward and punishment to better understand eating behavior in eating disorders. For example, does a person with anorexia nervosa choose a strawberry over a cookie because they find the strawberry more rewarding? Or is this person trying to avoid the cookie?

How have scientists tried to answer this question?

The field of cognitive neuroscience – which studies the brain circuits that underlie the way we acquire knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses – can help us to better understand reward-seeking and avoidance behavior in eating disorders. Recent research examining reward and avoidance learning in people without eating disorders has shown that learning to successfully avoid a loss is actually “reframed” in the brain as a reward. Based on brain imaging, it appears that learning to successfully avoid loss is reflected in changes in brain activity; it turns out that the part of the brain associated with reward is activated when a loss is avoided. 

How we’re studying this at Columbia:

At Columbia, we are applying these insights to the study of eating disorders. Specifically, we are looking to learn about how teens and adults with anorexia nervosa and without an eating disorder learn from reward and loss. As part of the study, participants complete two computer tasks that examine how people learn from positive and negative feedback. One of these computer tasks is completed during an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance image, a scanner which uses a magnet to take pictures of the brain and has the advantage of not involving any radiation!) so that we can watch the brain as it does its work. Participants will also be asked to complete some questionnaires, and eat a meal in our eating laboratory.  

If you are interested in learning more, please call (646) 774-8066 or email us at edru@nyspi.columbia.edu.

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