Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


Altered Cognitive and Psychophysiological Components of Psychological Flexibility in Individuals With Overweight/Obesity

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Abby Braden (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Amilcar Challu (Other)

Third Advisor

Dara Musher-Eizenman (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

William Hayes O'Brien (Committee Member)


The prevalence of overweight and obesity has continued to rise among adults. While biological factors contribute to overweight (Frayling et al., 2007), body weight regulation is influenced by behavior (Fuglestad, Jeffery, & Sherwood, 2012). Behavioral weight loss interventions often demonstrate only modest reductions in weight, possibly because the psychological factors that modulate obesity-related behaviors are rarely targeted in treatment. Thus, psychological flexibility may be of particular importance, given it describes the ability to perform goal-consistent behavior in the presence of contrary urges or environmental demands. To characterize the dynamic factors involved in psychological flexibility (Kashdan & Rottenberg, 2010), the present study examined between-group (overweight/obese: n=33, normal weight: n=47) differences in executive function, cognitive traits of awareness and acceptance, and heart rate variability (HRV). Individuals with overweight/obesity demonstrated poorer attention-shifting (Wisconsin Card Sorting Task, p = .009) and lower attention and awareness (Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, p = .01 and Difficulties in Emotion Regulation subscale emotional clarity, p = .006). Participants with overweight/obesity also demonstrated greater vagally-mediated HRV compared to normal weight with marginal significance (p = .07) and a medium effect size (partial eta squared = .042) across all HRV conditions (rest, stress, and recovery). No other significant differences were found regarding executive function (i.e., inhibition and working memory), cognitive features of acceptance and awareness (i.e. subscales of the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation scale), or HRV reactivity and recovery. Findings suggest some factors essential to psychological flexibility may be altered in individuals with overweight/obesity compared to normal-weight.