This weekend's New York Times "Style" section featured an article tracing the cupcake craze, the proliferation of bake shops across the country specializing in the fourth-grade birthday party signature treat, cupcakes. The article suggests our interest in cupcakes represents a return to comfort food (others find a similar path toward mac and cheese) and discusses how far from comfort, a la our diet culture, we've strayed. Lesley Balla, blogging food writer comments on the advent of cupcake stores in L.A.: "Do we really need another bakery? Probably not. But Angelenos have been starving for sugar and carbs for so long that the bakeries seem like a breath of fresh air."
Balla's wise words capture the principle of psychological reactance, defined in the APA Dictionary of Psychology :
. . . a motivational state characterized by distress, anxiety, resistance, and the desire to restore that freedom. According to this model, when people feel coerced or forced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion, often by demonstrating and increased preference for the behavior that is restrained, and may perform the opposite behavior to that desired.
The beauty of reactance theory is that it, despite its psychobabble, succinctly captures why diets fail (or at least the psychological reasons they fail). The more we're told we can't have, the more we want. Proponents of reactance theory might even argue for legalization of marijuana, gambling, and prostitution.
And so, since Atkins/South Beach/other diet of the moment has expressly forbidden sugar and, gasp, white flour, we begin to crave these ingredients to such an extent that we find ourselves secretly bingeing on them, or patiently, but urgently, lined up outside a cupcake bakery, waiting for our fix.
When I first visited Magnolia Bakery (a cupcake shop with its own wikipedia entry) in New York City*, I wasn't yet living here, but a friend thought I'd enjoy the experience. On a cold winter day, a line wrapped around the West Village block, and we were ushered in in two's and three's, allowed to box our own cupcakes, but warned of the cupcake limit (12). My friend apyly commented, "There's really no difference between this and a crack house." It's just a different drug of choice.
*for the record, now a permanent New York City resident, I prefer Crumbs, which offers 1) more flavors 2) a moister cake portion 3) frosting that isn't too sweet 4) an indoor line