Horse training, rats and over-eating

I have two horses and I like them to be well behaved but also really enthusiastic about what we do together (which is not always the case with horses!) I use clicker training (positive reinforcement) where the horse gets a reward (usually food) if it does the right thing. In clicker training, you pair the food reward with a “click” sound so the horse learns that the click means “Yes, that’s right!” This gives you an extremely powerful way to communicate very precisely with your horse.

Here’s my young horse Oto.

(Yes, this is relevant to overeating… read on!)

One of the concerns about training horses using positive reinforcement is that they are very big animals and sometimes they just have to do as they are told, even if they don’t want to, to avoid hurting someone. So, the obvious question is: “Why would a half ton horse do something it doesn’t want to do, for just a piece of carrot or a few oats?” It seems to stand to reason that if the horse wants to do its own thing more than it wants a piece of carrot, you’ll have a problem.

Oto bridge March 2010 00m 10sHowever, surprisingly, it doesn’t work like this. Once the horse is properly trained to do a behaviour, it becomes a habit to do it when you ask for it (i.e. when you give a “cue”), even if the horse has a strong motivation to do something else. So, I have trained Oto to stay with me on a loose lead rope, and the other day he did this even though a motorbike went past at about a hundred miles an hour and scared him. It’s become a habit. He keeps the rope slack without consciously thinking about it.

So, what’s this got to do with overeating? Well, in researching how animals respond to “cues”, scientists at John Hopkins University in Maryland have found that if you consistently show a blue light when feeding a hungry rat, say, pizza, and a red light when feeding the rat ice cream, eventually when you flash a blue light, the rat will eat pizza EVEN IF IT IS ABSOLUTELY FULL. And if you flash a red light, it will eat ice cream. The lights become “cues” to eat and they are followed automatically even if the rat doesn’t really want to eat. Similar responses have been found in humans.

Do you think maybe the food and advertising companies could have taken a special interest in this research?

So, the challenge is that we are bombarded with “eating cues” and we have been “trained” to perform certain behaviours (e.g. finish what’s on your plate). We can end up eating or finishing our plates even when it makes no sense, just as my horse didn’t run away when a big, scary motorbike was coming right at him! We end up eating and we might not even know why. We may not even consciously notice the “eating cue” – perhaps we walk past an advert or we smell something and then we find ourselves eating before we even know what happened. These cues go to the instinctual, emotional part of the brain, which acts very fast and at an unconscious level.

So, are we just helpless victims in all this? I think not. If we make a conscious effort to pause before carrying out “trained” behaviours, we can over-ride them. You are trained to stop at red lights but you can override this if the lights are broken. You are trained to use a toilet but sometimes you have to over-ride this on long walks in the hills!

Eat consciously and avoid going into autopilot whenever you can. Make a conscious effort to leave a little bit on your plate. Train yourself to get into helpful habits, like stopping when you are satisfied, so that this habit is strong enough to over-ride any external cues. And bear in mind that the food companies will be happy to train you to over-eat whenever they can!

Showing 7 comments


This is interesting Roz. Do you think the rats and lights researh could be used to STOP eating? if it could i get find myself with a nice little sidline of changing the colour of the light in peoples fridges! or even putting a light in the cupboad where i store crisps and bread! i guess that a colored cloth draped in the cupboard might also work. your thoughts would be interesting.

04/24/2010 10:54 AM
Roz Watkins

Interesting idea, Paul! I can imagine them doing something horrible with electric shocks… Or you could associate a particular colour light with feeling sick – that could be done with NLP. Or, I wonder what would happen if they flashed a green light every time they fed the rats some nice salad or vegetables… You could go around installing green lights in people’s fridges! Joking aside, this would quite likely work. Stranger things have happened on the Derren Brown show 🙂

04/24/2010 12:50 PM
in reply to Paul

the problem i have with leaving a little on my plate is what if i’m really enjoying my food?!

04/23/2010 10:41 PM
Roz Watkins

Hi, yes, this can make it hard to leave some! It’s really just about breaking the habit of ALWAYS eating everything on your plate (if that is a habit for you). If it’s not, and you don’t eat beyond hunger because you are good at not putting too much on your plate, then there’s no need to do this.

But some people never leave anything. If you ever let someone else serve you, this means you are letting someone else decide how much you eat. Research with “bottomless” soup bowls (which fill up from underneath) has shown that some people will just keep on eating pretty much forever if the bowl never empties! If you have this habit, you are inevitably going to over-eat on a regular basis.

If the food is really nice but you are full and there is still some left, why not save it for later when you are hungry again? Often, the need to eat it all in one go stems from dieting in the past because there is a thought in the back of your mind that if you don’t eat it now, you might not be “allowed” it later!

04/24/2010 07:44 AM
in reply to kateab

What about that bread smell in supermarkets? I’m told it isn’t even real bread but a chemical they waft a chemical scent of baking bread. Once you sniff it you can almost feel yourself rushing to the bread counter. Pause and walk on. I bought a bread machine.

04/23/2010 06:05 PM

Roz Watkins

Funny – trains do it to me too! They trigger sleeping and eating…

04/23/2010 11:45 AM

Yes I know this effect – there is something about train journeys that cues ‘eat grab-bag pack of Quavers and a kitkat’ to me … matter how long the journey is! Still at least I recognise this now and sometimes (shock horror) I go on a train and don’t eat anything!


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