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The Psychological Impact of “Turkey Day”: What happened to Thanksgiving?

November 25, 2014 by NCSF 0 comments

Thanksgiving is here, and so follows vast images of food. While historically a feast was the foundation for a celebration of giving thanks – it is unlikely the forefathers envisioned what has turned out to be the greatest national caloric imbalance. This emphasis on eating for the holiday is well reflected in its common nickname - Turkey Day. Thanksgiving is undoubtedly a time for gathering with family and friends for a meal dutifully prepared by the host to show their care for those whom the meal is shared. Appreciation for the effort given in preparing such an extravagant meal is clearly demonstrated, as many people eat to discomfort. Psychological sciences professor Don Saucier of Kansas State University says the over-indulgence is due to society’s shift in vision, from simply gathering together for social enrichment to eating a large meal, for social validation.

Social validation refers to the concept of looking to others in a social setting and adapting behaviors to gain approval in that environment. In the case of Thanksgiving, social validation is predominantly sought and established through food and drink; essentially, the main event is consumption. “The way people show their love and care for their family on Thanksgiving is through making their best dish for the Thanksgiving meal,” explains Saucier. “So for social validation to take place, family members are forced to accept that gesture to make sure the cooks feel validated in their demonstration of affection.”

Saucier goes on to clarify that eating in groups is a deeply-rooted social behavior. There are even gender-specific “rules” such as men being expected to eat much larger quantities, and women being expected to eat in a healthier manner. These unwritten understandings are strongly ingrained because food is a very easy way for many people to connect and enjoy each other’s company. Appreciation for good food is something almost everyone has in common. So, this begs the question – how does one limit him or herself from overeating on a holiday with all of these compelling social constructs already set into play?

It’s fairly simple answer; shift the attention from consumption to interaction. By creating an environment that places much more focus on an activity or interpersonal interactions it will prevent the common consumption outcomes. Playing a game for instance, is activity enough to avoid sitting, eating and drinking out of boredom, and far more stimulating.

“People should focus on connecting with others around them and fulfilling group members’ needs for social validation through expressed words instead of focusing on the amounts of food they eat,” recommends Saucier. Basically, the host should try to bring the attention and focus back to sharing more diverse experiences together for Thanksgiving – rather than just sticking to the dinner table.

How can this be accomplished?

In any case, people should try to remember that Thanksgiving is generally intended as a time to gather with people we care about while reflecting on things we are thankful for. Certainly everyone should enjoy the food, but hopefully there will be a shift from eating as much as possible, to connecting with people we appreciate in our lives.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving.

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