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As commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s, Dr. David Kessler was known for regulating cigarettes, cutting time for drug approvals, and enforcing food labels. But ever since leaving Washington, Kessler has worried less about the rule of law and more about why people do things against their own self-interest.

A pediatrician and lawyer by training, Kessler talked with STAT about his new book “Capture,” which was published last week.

What do you mean that things like smoking and junk food can “capture” us?

The theory of capture is composed of three elements: Something seizes our attention; it changes how we feel; [and] there’s a perception of a loss of control.


What drew you into studying this? 

I became convinced there was a common mechanism underlying many of our emotional struggles and mental illnesses. If you look at someone who’s depressed, there’s a constant attentional shift toward negative: I’m a fraud, I’m a failure, I’m no good.

And you think this idea of capture can help break the cycle?

To be able to offer up a new theory of mental suffering in a way that people can understand it, and most importantly not to feel that people who suffer are broken — that to me is the most important aspect of capture.


Can we escape our traps by thinking or willing our way out?

Certainly if you look at the traditions of Buddhism — they try to decrease your emotional reactivity. What antidepressants do is reduce emotional reactivity. I’m convinced that the best way to get release from capture is to find something more positive that can be more meaningful that captures you.

Such as?

In the book, for one character it was music, for another it was running, for [Winston] Churchill it was painting. You don’t necessarily control what you’re captured by, but you can put yourself in a position to be captured by certain things.

Is the idea of capture relevant to the current Presidential campaign?

What are some of the candidates playing with? They’re playing with highly salient stimuli. Whether it’s the decline of America or scapegoats or being cheated by others. Leadership can either capture people with a negative image of the world or a positive image. Both will work, but [the negative] is scary, with a direct line to violence.

Do companies use capture to manipulate us?

Making things salient, isn’t that the goal of advertising?

Did you try to use this thinking to break yourself of any habits?

I have suits in every size. I realized I had to change my own perception of food.

Anything that’s captured you outside of work?

My first grandchild.

Dr. David Kessler is a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. This interview has been edited and condensed.