Clinical psychologist Eric Stice suggested using dissonance theory to help combat a dangerous obsession with thinness.

Stice, who is currently an senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin, presented his research on effective ways to combat and prevent eating disorders at a lecture Thursday hosted by the Center for Child and Family Policy. Fifty professors and researchers from both Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, congregated at the Sanford School of Public Policy to listen to his presentation. The majority of his presentation focused on his research in dissonance-induction, a method where individuals with a poor body image must outwardly disagree with the societal projection of ideal body image.

“Dissonance theory practically is if you don’t believe in something, and then you’re [in support of] it, then your verbal statement is incongruous with your originally held beliefs,” Stice explained. “That creates psychological discomfort we feel hypocritical and that trains your attitude.”

Stice further explained dissonance theory in his presentation as voluntarily arguing against a commonly held opinion, which leads individuals to diverge from those popular views—for example, the ideal images of supermodels.

The Body Project—an eating disorders prevention program developed by Stice and Katherine Presnell, assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University—uses dissonance to train people to reject those images of projected perfection. The project consists of four weekly one-hour sessions of counseling and homework in which the teenage participants who subscribe to “thin ideals” must argue against it in essay and debate form. Participants also post letters and videos on the Internet condemning the thin ideal.

Follow-up surveys of the participants after three years showed that the sessions reduced the number of eating disorders by 60 percent.

“The more accountable you are, the bigger the dissonance,” Stice explained.

Having conducted trials on both college and high school campuses, Stice noted that the high school programs were less successful due to the selection and supervision of counselors and facilitators. At the college level, The Body Project also employed peer mentors who facilitated the sessions, which were about 33 percent less effective than clinical physicians with several years of experience.

Although the program has proven to be effective, it is still not 100 percent successful, Stice said. He noted that one reason may be that certain individuals have elevated negative mood disturbances, which can be solved by supplementary intervention.

Ken Dodge, director of the Center for Child and Family Policy, explained how preventative practices are an area of clinical psychology that is continuously being researched and expanded, both in the Triangle area and elsewhere.

“The mission of the center is to help translate research to practice and public work,” Dodge, William McDougall professor of public policy, said. “This is a perfect model of that [mission] that takes ideas from social psychology.”

Prevention is a crucial element of treating eating disorders that continues to be developed, said Anna Bardone-Cone, an associate professor of clinical psychology at UNC who attended the lecture. She noted that Stice’s work is both interesting and relevant.

“It’s not the kind of research I do right now, but I think it’s very important,” Bardone-Cone said. “I’d like to be kept abreast of it.”

The event was part of the Transdisciplinary Prevention Research Center’s Science to Service: Substance Abuse Prevention Seminar series. That it took place during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is coincidental, Stice said.