Childhood Obesity, Motivation, and Change

Light Bulb

Let’s start with a couple of hackneyed jokes.

Q. How many magicians does it take to change a light bulb?
A. That depends on what you want to change it into.
Q. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. None — the light bulb will change when it’s ready.

Carol Bainbridge, who writes about gifted children, defines intrinsic motivation as the kind that comes from inside a person. The other kind, which comes from outside, might take many forms such as money, good grades, praise, or various other kinds of rewards. Bainbridge writes:

The motivation comes from the pleasure one gets from the task itself or from the sense of satisfaction in completing or even working on a task…. Intrinsic motivation does not mean, however, that a person will not seek rewards. It just means that such external rewards are not enough to keep a person motivated.

A report on animal-assisted intervention (AAI), published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, notes that theories about motivation have formed around the differences between explicit and implicit motive systems. Implicit motives are characterized as “hot” and affectively engaging, while explicit motives are “cold” and identified with neutral affect. The report explains:

Implicit motives are mainly processed by the experiential system…. Such experiential stimuli include, for example, the sight of a friendly dog, the waving of a tail or the fur touching one’s skin. Their meaning for the organism is coded by positive emotional-motivational states, such as curiosity, affection, or joy.

Implicit motives are aroused via the subconscious mind, and mainly in response to nonverbal stimuli. Conversely, explicit motives appear to be consciously aroused, chiefly in response to verbal stimuli. Research yielded some interesting data about the relationship between animals and motivation in children:

[A]nimals influence mainly implicit motives. In performance and learning situations AAI may enhance implicit motives and improve the implicit-explicit motive-goal congruence. Making exercises for and with a dog would thus lead to a higher level of implicit motivation, which would predict higher performance.

A point made by all researchers in this field is that unless external motivators line up in some way with the person’s intrinsic or implicit motives, they will not have much power. Often, the two kinds of motives are actually in conflict — which leads back to a problem that health-care professionals are faced with all too often.

Magicians and psychologists

As in the case of the magicians who want to change a light bulb, there has to be a concept of what it might change into. Change is always frightening, even when it’s obviously for the better, and for someone who has never lived in any other way, the emotional resistance can be enormous.

A very self-aware young woman once told a friend that she felt fine in her stocky body and feared that she could never be comfortable with a slender figure because it would always feel untethered and insecure, in danger of being knocked off balance or blown away by wind. Her need to feel firmly planted on the earth provided a strong implicit motive that outweighed any other potential reward.

Children of both sexes have gotten fat and stayed fat as a defense against all kinds of threats, both real and imaginary, and probably without a bit of self-awareness involved. It’s about survival, but more than likely these kids would be unable to reveal this implicit motive if you paid them, or even if you threatened them, because they don’t have the necessary self-knowledge. It’s very difficult to know what goes on inside other people’s heads, mainly because most of the time they themselves don’t even know.

Like the lightbulb that will only change when it’s ready, a patient or client will only change when ready, regardless of how many psychologists are involved.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Intrinsic Motivation,”
Source: “Dogs motivate obese children for physical activity,”, 10/29/13
Image by Italo Alves

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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