Sue Backhouse Professor of psychology podcast

053: Susan Backhouse on eating and cheating

Sue Backhouse, Professor of psychology and nutrition at Leeds Beckett University is this week’s guest. Sue is an expert in the complexity around two huge areas – eating and cheating. Everyone’s a nutritionist these days, everyone’s a psychologist and everyone has an opinion on the issue of doping. Three emotive, convoluted and noisy areas for Sue to tackle.

What Sue’s research does is something quite unique, particularly so compared with a lot of reductionist studies that pare back all confounding variables to a level of control almost sterility. Of course, you need that level of meticulous control for some research but often important areas get neglected by researchers because they’re too messy. Equally what Sue is able to do is see through the clatter, the jumble and offer illuminating yet grounded findings and advice.

We explore the hows and whys of influencing athletes to adopt certain dietary practices and how underpinning motivation and behaviour are essential for change. Then we get into a rich discussion about why people dope, the context, knowledge, social norms, group think, can all be factors in people taking or not taking that step into violating rules and how people reconcile their minds that what they’re doing is ok. A fascinating area, one that I have spent my life staunchly and adamantly against and working to support athletes in an ethical and legal way. At the end of the conversation I felt more aware and understanding and perhaps slightly more empathetic towards a doper – NOT that I have lowered my stance – but by better understanding why people cheat I feel I might be able to help someone choose not to.

Show notes:

  • Sue’s formative years leading to her career in sport.
  • Resetting ambitions and dealing with rejection and disappointment and how this has turned into an advantage.
  • Complexity of behaviour on multiple levels towards food and nutrition.
  • The role of emotions and how it drives behaviour, decision making and the support required to be sensitive to.
  • Capability Opportunity Motivation model of behaviour (COM-B); a behaviour change model recognise that in order to bring about change one needs a capability i.e. education, training and skills.
  • Having difficult conversations and making sure everyone is on the same page with the same expectations.
  • Just telling!
  • Barriers towards nutritional adherence
  • What are the unintended consequences of some of these short term solutions?
  • Doping, “I just did what I was told…”
  • Social norms of dysfunction, the power of the group.
  • Unravelling the complexities of doping, the vulnerability, the goal directed behaviours, the protection of health, athlete identity and winning at all costs.
  • Differences in doping violations, team versus individual approach
  • Therapeutic exemption and the knock-on effect of the negativity surrounding doping
  • Fearless organisations and having difficult conversations


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