Psychology corner: Why you eat too much

August 22nd, 2011 - 24 Comments

Not long ago, I came across what may be the single best interview on behavorial change ever given. This interview is PACKED with insights on what actually motivates our behaviors (as opposed to the incorrect, surface-level reasons we think are behind it).

For example, many people believe they are in control of their own behaviors. Ironically, these people are persuaded every day to buy certain things, feel certain ways, and communicate in certain ways…yet thanks to their worldview of control, they never acknowledge how susceptible we are to influence.

Yet here’s a classic example of how a seemingly minor change can cause huge changes in behavior:

“So we put candies either on their desks or six feet from their desks in either a clear or an opaque bowl, and every day we refilled the candy dishes. And we found that a typical secretary on a typical day would eat about nine Hershey’s Kisses–which is about 225 calories–if they were sitting on her desk.

But if we moved the candy dish six feet away, they ate only four candies–or about 125 fewer calories a day. Over the course of a year, that would translate into 11 to 12 pounds of extra weight they would gain by having the candy on the desk instead of six feet away.

We asked the secretaries if six feet was just too far to walk, but they said, “No, it’s just that the six feet gave me pause to think, ‘Am I really that hungry?’” And half the time, they said no.”

The lay person could use that example to alter a few things in their lives to substantial effect (think of how to persuade yourself to eat healthier, or use the gym more frequently).

A skilled persuader would understand the principle beneath the example, and could systematically apply persuasion principles to achieve dramatic behavioral changes — for themselves and others.

Points to consider:

  • The experiment shows that people ate more not because they were hungry/sad/stressed, but because they were PROMPTED TO by external cues (bigger buckets, a candy bowl being right on your desk vs. 6 feet away, calling it “Belgian Black Forest Cake” instead of just “Chocolate Cake”, etc.)
  • This calls into question the entire premise that you are in control of your spending (or eating, or health) behavior. In fact, we all have some level of control…but a skilled persuader can dramatically change your behavior using external factors
  • It’s easy to laugh and say you would never be swayed by such things, but in studies, virtually everyone says this — even when presented with evidence that they were subtly persuaded. Trust me: I know the research, and even I am persuaded by these factors
  • If true, this has fascinating implications for the decisions we make – and what we do or don’t prioritize – in other areas of our lives
  • “It’s easier to change your environment than it is to change your mind”

If you’re interested in learning how to use these influence techniques against yourself — and others, ethically — you can sign up for a free mini-course here.

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24 Comments

 

Comments

  1. I recently realized that I am NOT in control of my behaviors and happiness to an extent. If I was, I would value my happiness and satisfaction higher than what people think or expect me to do. Obviously this is no way to live. I would rather fall flat on my face by my own decisions, than to fall flat on my face by blindly the words/beliefs of another.

    Case in point, to stay at or leave a job I don’t like in this shaky economy.

  2. fascinating stuff Ramit, as a clinical nutritionist, I work with this psychology EVERY day including my own personal life. I tell my clients that when you’re changing your diet, it’s not always a huge overwhelming battle, it’s really that 2 minute battle of whether to buy something you are craving or not – you survive that 2 minute battle and you find that you don’t think about it the rest of the day. On an even more holistic look, there’s aisles you shouldn’t even gaze down if you want to be healthy – i call the grocery store a jungle, where you are the prey, protect your subconscious mind at all costs, most decisions are emotional and a result of subconscious patterning…patterned as early as age 5-6!

  3. There’s a really great book on exactly this topic: Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath. It’s all about how to change, and how the things that allow us to change are not necessarily what we think. (Willpower generally doesn’t cut it.) They spend about a third of the book talking about the environment, stuff like putting the candy dish further away if you don’t want to eat candy, or leaving the guitar in the middle of the room instead of a closet if you want to play the guitar more. Cool stuff.

    • I second this comment! Switch is one of my favorite books and one of the most useful books to act upon. It’s especially good if you also read Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis which I think should be required reading for every human being. Haidt takes a look at happiness and behavior through a widely interdisciplinary lens; from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience to religion and evolution.

      Thanks for the link to the interview, Ramit!

  4. What a gold mine. I couldn’t stop laughing at this line…

    “Intelligent people especially can figure out a rationalization for anything they want to believe. We call it the intelligence trap.”

    Awesome!

  5. There’s a fascinating website called “which test won” (I am in no way affiliated with this site) which shows a variety of AB tests and their results.

    AB tests are what web site designers do when they want to try a new design element or strategy. You implement the new idea and then send a portion of your traffic to a version of the site with that new idea. The rest of your traffic serves as a control group, allowing you to see the impact of your idea.

    Some of the results are fascinating. They show people making completely different decisions just because the website designer put the writing in green instead of orange, or added a slightly different title. Very eye opening for anyone who thinks we’re not influenced by our environment.

  6. That linked study is amazing material.

  7. Big fan of this idea and the work from the BJ Fogg (?) interview in the Hustle course.
    Biggest takeaway- the environment we have affects us more than we realize. (I love the example of the father who wants his college aged daughter to study more; the advice is to put her in a dorm where students have higher grades)

  8. How true this is! So much of our lives could be controlled in that short time it takes to become mindful of our actions. Of course, putting the candy out of arms reach is brilliant in itself :)

  9. I noticed myself doing this as well. Which is why I now try to just not buy unhealthy food. At work, I will put food into drawers and lock the drawers. The extra effort of opening the drawers every time is enough to dissuade me from doing it. Not because I am lazy but because it gives me a chance to reflect.

  10. This brings up two things. Prior to reading this article, my wife and I recently went to a new Italian restaurant in our town. When we looked at the menu, most entrees were $14 to $16, and we thought that was an extremely good value. When the servings actually arrived, it was a four inch pile of pasta on a 12 inch round plate. It didn’t feel like such a good value, once we received our dish. I could never understand why a restaurant would give a small (or in this case average) sized portions on large plates. It makes you believe that you aren’t getting enough. It is the bigger bowl syndrome. It’s bigger, so I should or will have more!

    Secondly, sometimes it is your internal gastronomical make-up that is doing the decision making. Anecdotally, I had recently had antibiotics for an infection. These not only kill the bad bacteria causing the ailment, but the good bacteria that your system needs to function properly. My doctor told me to eat whole uncut oats (oat groat) and to stay away from fast sugars, which feed the bad bacteria and promotes its growth. After doing this for a couple of weeks, my system is back in order, and now my favorite licorice that is in the cupboard sits untouched. Because I no longer have the cravings and the feelings of euphoria when eating candy or fast sugars (because the bad bacteria gives off substances that makes the brain say, Yuuuum Goood after eating sugars) I can now restrain or eat considerably less than I use to, making it easier to see the candy, but not partake. Sometimes, it is the makeup of the person, rather than a psychological impact that is doing the decision making. The scientists should redo the same study that has a control group with balanced gastrointenstinal tracks. I think their findings would be drastically different, because society is full of antibacterial products (not just antibiotics for illnesses).

  11. Great post! Time to setup an experiment in the office..

    There’s also a fascinating book called Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein. It’s full of examples like this. The book targets improvements to our major decision making process which typically has an abbreviated research cycle, allows no retries and is highly influenced by other factors.

  12. Not to miss the point of the post (good points!), but there’s an excellent video on YouTube called Sugar: The Bitter Truth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM) that explains why so many of us are obese. In many cases, maintaining the right weight is much simpler than most of us make it out to be. (I know because I was one of those people who tried a bazillion different things!)

    Cut out the sugar, and you won’t have the cravings to eat more than you need. Of course, you can’t just go and replace it with artificial sweeteners (which are evil in their own right!), but I definitely recommend that video to everyone, whether you’re trying to lose weight or not.

  13. People should be taking control over what they eat by taking time to plan. This will also help save money. I talk about it in my blog at http://www.carriecoghill.com/_blog/Carrie's__Blog/post/Keep_healthy_foods_that_you_like_around/

    • Rule #1: Whenever you say, “People should ___,” you have already lost.

      Ask yourself and be brutally honest: Do people really want to plan? This idea is threatening to a lot of us because our entire belief in behavioral change is, “Well…he should just do that! If he tries harder, he could…”

      Yet time after time again, we find that that is not true — which is exactly the point of this blog, as well as the interview I linked to above.

    • I see this with so many other healthcare practitioners. They correctly identify that “stress” is involved, or that a patient needs to “exercise” or “meditate”…but they leave it at the textbook statement and leave the psychology out.

      Patient: “Doc, I’m stressed, I feel wired, but run down and fatigued all of the time”
      Doctor: “You need to relax, walk 20 minutes/day and try meditation and you should really try to get some more sleep”

      (in reality the patient feels that they are unable to do those things because of the fact that they feel so wired and run down in the first place…it’s a vicious cycle)

      We might think that the doctor is being progressive and giving sound advice (and technically he/she is), but vague recommendations like that are impractical…no goals, motivations, or barriers have been identified specific to that individual’s life and circumstances.

      What happens is the patient is not able to comply with the generalized recommendation, the doctor is also quietly assuming noncompliance (instead of re-framing the problem for the patient)…and eventually the patient is unable to sleep, becomes progressively depressed and is now managed long-term with anti-depressants, sleep aids, attention aids, etc and attention to the root causes of the health problems is lost.

      Take notes from BJ Fogg’s work, subscribe to the e-mail list and listen to the interview.

      It’s better to reframe the problem, identify key barriers, set ridiculously small goals, build habits piece by piece, aim for quick wins, and pay attention to the social/visual/emotional triggers in your immediate decision-making environment.

      Get small wins early and naturally you’ll develop fundamental skills/habits, and an internal drive to take on the bigger goals.

  14. @Alexander,

    It’s better to reframe the problem, identify key barriers, set ridiculously small goals, build habits piece by piece, aim for quick wins, and pay attention to the social/visual/emotional triggers in your immediate decision-making environment.

    Thank you so much for this. It’s been very helpful. And timely.
    I’m thinking about the challenge for the individual in a work-at-home environment. And how to reframe “not working effectively” so that I examine the external factors that govern my behavior — both in terms of the environment itself (physical space, virtual computer space) and the interactions (or lack thereof) that aren’t helping me with this work/productivity/effectiveness hack.

    (Happily, I have had recent dramatic success with diet and weight loss, so I am allowing that momentum and the happy state of commit regular effort –> experience dramatic results to spill over from this realm to the solo entrepreneur realm.)

    • My pleasure Susan, but I do have to give some credit back to Ramit and BJ Fogg for my comment. You’ll find the same things that lead to success in health, will lead you well in your business. I think we look at successes like Ramit and other bloggers out there, but we do not see the 14 hours it took to write the e-mails or blog posts. For us, we just see a blip on our RSS feeds, and for others, a great opportunity for coaching and advancement of their personal finance lives. Another great book that’s coming out in September is Uncertainty by Jonathan Fields…interestingly Fields’ take on overcoming Fear and Uncertainty come back to the same things that Ramit talks about…

  15. I’m really glad you posted this. It’s got me thinking deeply about my company’s product and how we can increase it’s perceived value.

  16. This is awesome– I love learning about the psychology behind our actions, especially those “consumption” actions (eating, drinking, spending, shopping, etc.) Immediately when I read this, I thought of all of those sneaky little tricks that marketers and retailers employ to get you to spend more. It really is just like waving a tasty burger or enticing bowl of candy beneath your nose to get you to eat more. In both situations, you hardly even notice that you’re being seduced into spending, or eating, more than you ever wanted to. I work for Mango Money and we recently posted a great video on this little “in-store marketing booby traps.” You can check it out here: http://www.mangomoney.com/blog/trends/the-booby-traps-of-in-store-marketing
    Just try to be aware– whether it’s with your eating or spending.

  17. I have been trying for a couple years to convince friends that there are psychological parallels between food consumption and personal finance. That if you learn to fix one, you have tools to fix the other. Half of them look at my like I’m crazy, and most of the rest are obviously humoring me.

  18. This is awesome– I love learning about the psychology behind our actions, especially those “consumption” actions (eating, drinking, spending, shopping, etc.) Immediately when I read this, I thought of all of those sneaky little tricks that marketers and retailers employ to get you to spend more. It really is just like waving a tasty burger or enticing bowl of candy beneath your nose to get you to eat more. In both situations, you hardly even notice that you’re being seduced into spending, or eating, more than you ever wanted to.

    I work for Mango Money and we recently posted a great video on this little “in-store marketing booby traps.” You can check it out here: http://www.mangomoney.com/blog/trends/the-booby-traps-of-in-store-marketing Just try to be aware– whether it’s with your eating or spending.