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“Ugh, why don’t fat people just eat less?”

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If you’ve heard an ignorant comment like that, you’ve probably been to any of a thousand online forums.

overweight woman body in underwear

People love to demonize others for overspending and overeating, especially behind the anonymity of online commenting. Nothing drives me crazier than people who ignore decades of research to judge others for their supposed lack of willpower.

This is why you’ll see the personal-responsibility zealots who repeatedly chant, “Ugh, let’s talk about personal responsibility,” as if that simplistic argument explains why people who genuinely want to spend and eat less simply cannot.

This superb New York Times article offers more evidence of ancillary factors in behavioral change:

“I have grave concerns about how many of these television shows stigmatize overweight people by making them a spectacle,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. “They suggest that if you only try hard enough you can be thin. A far better message is that it’s hard to lose weight and that it’s not just willpower and personal responsibility, but that both biology and the environment are players.”

I’ve written about the similarities between food and personal finance before.

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has written a terrific book describing how food companies systematically engineer foods to overeaten (including designing foods that can be swallowed quicker so we can consumer more and more in one sitting). These are tested, refined, and optimized processes, not mere accidents.

Most importantly, behavioral change is not simply about trying harder. Yes, effort is important, but whether it’s passive barriers or the variety of other reasons that illustrate how personal finance is not about more willpower, let’s be real: Behavioral change is incredibly complex and difficult.

Anyone who believes people overeat and overspend simply because of a lack of willpower is simplistically ignoring decades of research so they can ideologically mislead themselves.

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163 Comments

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  1. First! (Thank you for making posts late at night, my RSS likes you.)

    BTW: If you had more willpower you would blog more often! Thanks Ramit!

  2. Ah, willpower.

    In one of my psych classes (way back when) there were a series of lectures on the psychology of marketing and the ways industry targets people. Weeks were spent on the topic. Most students were worried only about memorizing the details of each lecture long enough to take an exam, then forget them.

    I, however, came out of it with this: Large, successful businesses use well-trained psychologists (in marketing, engineering, where ever) to determine the best way to get money out of your pockets and into theirs. It’s easy, really. Just convince the customer that he needs whatever trivial product they have on the table and he’ll do anything to buy it.

    They are extremely effective and successful at their jobs.

    They work to break the willpower of potential customers to turn them into paying customers. They use some sneaky — sometimes scary — tactics to make people want more; the bigger, better, stronger, newest versions, upgrade, super-size, biggie-size.

    Indeed: willpower is hard thing to overcome: We buy more and eat more because we’ve been trained to over our lifetimes.

    • actually I buy more food because I think it looks good…and because I generally like to eat….
      I find it funny that people think its eating less, or eating healthier that will make you skinnier…I mean ive been fat before…but lets be honest…I wasn’t very athletic during those days…I am now, I eat tons, and only eat what I want, or what looks good…I also don’t work out “how im supposed to”, but rather by what I genuinely enjoy doing. I’ve found I like pull-ups and squats…as weird as it is, I do them when I get the chance, such as waiting for gas to fill up or walking through a doorway…yeah im that guy randomely working out…without a gym…in the middle of a store or a friends house…not to show off, but rather because I can.
      I don’t have to eat less or healthier because I need to be healthy…I don’t even take daily vitamins (except vitamin C, those tablets remind me of sour warheads, only they stay sour…LOVE IT! lol). What I do do (de do de do), is go for jogs or walks on occasion, stuff my face full of pizza, bacon, chicken soundwiches, whatevs yo, and generally stay active while doing what I want when I want.

      What it really takes is the desire.
      if you want to lose weight, than you have to actually want it. If you don’t, more power to you, its not what you want so its not what should be forced on you. What should be forced on you, is yourself. If you do what you want, and what you want is to lose weight…you win.
      If you aren’t actually trying to lose weight, you simply don’t want it (enough)

  3. I think the willpower to WANT to change is essential before any system will stick. In other words, no matter how mind-blowing a system is, it won’t amount to long-term change without the desire to change.

    However, people rarely point out the opposite (as you have). All the willpower in the world is utterly useless without a system that reinforces positive habits and makes it easy to maintain momentum.

    Ultimately, I think people need a combination of both. I’m not sure what inspired this post, but it had to be good. 😉

  4. Seems like a rehashing of your old posts. Nonetheless, you make a great observation.

  5. Willpower is also difficult to battle when it’s supported by conditioning. My uncle grew up in Polish ghettos of WWII and taught me to always finish my plate. “Taught” might not even be the right word… I couldn’t leave the table without finishing the plate. Now it’s hard to break that almost pavlovian habit.

  6. Ramit, you’re not alone in the recent trend of cherry picking studies over the last thirty years to find the ones that forgive average people for being average. Nor are you alone in realizing that appealing to average folks is the straightest path to mass popularity/ sales.

    It still seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that “willpower” or “commitment” or “drive” or whatever is not a key part of the solution here. Willpower alone may be worthless without a good strategy, but no strategy is worth anything without the willpower to see it through.

    Assuming that someone has the wrong strategy is tantamount to calling them uninformed/ stupid. I’m not sure that insulting fat people/ poor savers in this way is better. Unless of course you’re selling them a plan.

  7. @Nate, re-read the second to last paragraph of his post…
    “Yes, effort is important, but whether it’s passive barriers or the variety of other reasons that illustrate how personal finance is not about more willpower, let’s be real: Behavioral change is incredibly complex and difficult.”

  8. It all starts with the mind… That’s where the battle is fought. That’s where it begins, willpower, strength to overcome and keep going, everything. Once YOU see it in your mind and then get all the willpower books and great planning ideas. Then and maybe then it may stick (the over spending and over eating). The mind is the battlefield… Just my two bits.

  9. It’s true enough that marketers have learned to take advantage of parts of human nature that are naturally unconscious processes. Still, we can gain awareness and learn to avoid some behaviors.

    One of the absolute scourges of American society is high fructose corn syrup soda. Just eliminating that one diabetes-promoting horror of tooth decay in a bottle can help people be healthier AND richer. Have your morning latte if you like, and quit feeding the soda machine instead.

    Ever notice how they push this garbage at fast food places? This is because “soft drinks” are the biggest profit center they have. I was in the grocery store the other day and there is a whole double-sided, extra wide aisle JUST for soda, right in the middle of the store. I have never been a soda drinker (I am not a big sweets person) and from my viewpoint this kind of marketing is really creepy.

    To something like this, we really can Just Say No.

  10. I’m so glad that everyone here has the quick fix for this problem. Willpower can be fleeting. For fat people, the hard part is keeping that willpower. Advertising tailors to our desires, and food ties in with a basic need. Twinkies are a different matter, but it still ties in with food. It’s easier to hide financial bloating than physical, but they run along the same basic guidelines.

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