The Psychology of the Jeremy Clarkson incident by Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

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The Psychology of the Jeremy Clarkson incident

Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham

IMG_2357The incident where popular TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson may or may not have got into a fight, which may or may not have turned physical, with a producer on the hit TV series ‘Top Gear’, continues to generate speculation over exactly what happened and why it did.

Some pundits are even delving into Jeremy Clarkson’s past personal stresses to account for the current fracas.

It appears Clarskon ‘lost it’ on being offered a cold supper option as opposed to the hot meal he and fellow presenters had been expecting.

Food seemed to ignite the spark that eventually appears to have turned into a kind of ‘Food Fury’. Might ‘Emotional Eating’ possibly explain some of what happened?

‘Emotional eating’ explains when feelings such as annoyance appear to prompt feasting as a way of dealing with stress. Emotional eating may be a significant cause of the obesity epidemic.

An emotionally intelligent TV producer might therefore be more wary of getting between any amply endowed TV presenter, and his dinner, after a long stressful day. Hunger might lead to a particularly short fuse, particularly if you are already stressed, and your habit is to use food as a comfort.

Yet the key psychological aspect might be not just food, but in fact choice. Not being given options could also have driven this spiral out of control.

Psychology experiments have found that higher liking ratings are made for foods tasted in the laboratory, if participants are allowed to choose which foods to sample, than if they were simply given exactly the same foods to taste, with no choice.

This older psychology result partly inspired the authors of new research which now suggests that even the offer of choice could be a knife-edge call, in terms of emotions.

Katie Osdoba, Traci Mann, Joseph Redden and Zata Vickers from the University of Minnesota, USA have just published the results of a psychology experiment which seems to come close to replicating the Jeremy Clarkson incident, but with surprising results.

Participants came to the psychology lab hungry, as it was dinner time, whereupon the psychologists induced a great deal of stress by telling them that they would have five minutes to prepare a public speech where their performance would be evaluated.

In the study entitled ‘Using food to reduce stress: Effects of choosing meal components and preparing a meal’, each participant was then assigned to one of four dinner situations where the amount of choice they had was varied, and the impact of choice on their mood was investigated.

In one option participants prepared a meal and had control over selection of meal components. In another situation participants prepared their meal, but had no control over the menu. In yet another, participants had control over the menu, but the meal was prepared by someone else. Finally some participants were provided with a meal prepared by someone else.

The surprising result was that having no choice produced greater reductions in anxiety and anger compared with the choice conditions.

In a result likely to astonish those like Jeremy Clarkson, blood pressure was reduced more in the ‘no choice’ than in the ‘choice’ condition, after the meal.

The authors of the research, just published in the academic journal ‘Food Quality and Preference’, conclude that choosing might be a psychologically or emotionally depleting task particularly when psychological resources are more limited, ie when hungry and stressed.

In an argument that those skeptical of psychology (perhaps like Jeremy Clarkson) might find hard to swallow, the authors argue that choosing in certain predicaments can actually add to general stress.

Not faced with options could avoid this unnecessary strain.

This psychological phenomenon is referred to as the ‘Paradox of Choice’. It refers to how too many options may make choice unappealing, because choice can also be frustrating. The added burden of weighing all the possibilities and making the ‘best’ selection can increase dissatisfaction with the final result. The underlying thought of regret might be that you failed in your quest to find the best option.

Psychology experiments quoted in the present study confirm greater dissatisfaction is experienced when the same option is chosen from an extensive set (24-30 options) than from a set with limited choices (six).

It follows, the authors of the new study contend, that consuming a meal without the burden of choosing might be a stress-reduction strategy.

However, perhaps the key to explaining the result given the current food rage incidents that have recently dominated the headlines is that in this latest experiment, all participants received foods they liked.

If the alternative is you were forced to consume options you were less keen on, then maybe having a choice would have lowered blood pressure as opposed to raising it.

The take away message might appear to be that food rage incidents up and down the country, when hungry and stressed spouses and children arrive home, might be prevented with a bit of psychology.

In fact don’t offer a choice as long as you know what they tend to want, and can deliver that.

What to do however, if you have no choices to offer and only something they don’t like, plus you already know they are hungry and stressed?

Suppose you are a TV producer confronting an angry and hungry TV presenter?
Psychology may offer a novel solution to this predicament.

Why not seize the opportunity to quote the ‘Paradox of Choice’ psychology research, how in certain predicaments options in fact cause more stress, before diving for cover?

Raj Persaud is now joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

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