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Psychology corner: Why you eat too much

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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

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  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.

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