Ezequiel Galarce, PhD
Why do we continuously do things that are not in our best interest?
My research is focused on understanding the antecedents of sub-optimal decision processes and maladaptive behaviors that conflict with our long-term goals.Â We like to think about ourselves as free agents with complete control over our choices, but our freedom and agency to make the “right” choices is limited greatly by our biology, history, culture and context. The more adverse these influences are, the more limiting they can become. Today we know --better than ever-- that society, neighborhood, family and friends are powerful influences in the development of our health behaviors.
In recent years, the concept of self-regulation (i.e. the capacity to monitor and control attentional, thought, emotional and behavioral processes) has found its way into social determinants of health and health behavior research. Self-regulation is thought to moderate the relationship between intention (e.g. to eat healthy) and actual behaviors. Early adversity, with its associated high levels of stress, affects the normal development of self-regulatory processes, resulting in more impulsive-like behaviors which may include. My working hypothesis, instead, is that childhood food insecurity may bias self-regulatory processes towards overeating, not as a result of a delayed or faulty developmental trajectory but as the outcome of cue-elicited anticipatory processes that prepare an individual to survive in a scarce and unpredictable environment. These experience-dependent processes may become maladaptive only when there is a mismatch between its predictions and actual environmental overabundance of food availability.
During my two years as a RWJF Health & Society Scholar I have attempted to understand the effects of early adversity on the development of health and risk behaviors throughout the life course. More specifically, I have examined the effects of childhood food insecurity on the development of cognitive processes, food consumption patterns and metabolic outcomes. I have been pursuing this goal at three levels of analysis: rodent models, human experiments and large longitudinal datasets. In Dr. Linda Wilbrecht’s mouse laboratory, I have developed a model of childhood food insecurity and I am currently examining its effects on food intake, weight gain and cognitive processes. In Dr. Wendy Mendes human psychophysiology laboratory, I am exploring the interactive effects of childhood and current food-insecurity on adult food intake and self-regulation. On a third line of research , I am using causal modeling to test aspects of the model depicted in the figure above using data from Panel Study of Income Dynamics.
We all want happiness, health and love, but there’s something in the immediacy of sensory pleasure that can pull us from everything we “really” want. I believe that the power of the here and now is jointly determined by genetic and environmental influences. My research attempts to understand the latter types of influences to contribute to interventions designed at improving health decision making for all societal groups, especially in those which present most difficulties in maintaining healthy lifestyles.