The Promise That Breaks Itself   Leave a comment

There is no shortage of blog posts on new year’s resolutions, and you can pretty much bet that next year the suggestions, tips and stories will be recycled and rehashed as people wonder “what happened?” and “what can I do differently this year?”  There are many reasons why resolutions,  promises and commitments fail, but most news stories and blog treatments grossly oversimplify them, which leaves the impression that its one or two issues that result in most broken commitments.  And this sort of gross oversimplification is very attractive because it can be further simmered down to a soundbite or 140 characters.

The reality is that resolutions and commitments fail for a myriad of reasons including (but not limited to) cravings, powerful unconscious drives and conflicts, habits, cognitive biases, neurocognitive processes that affect attention and memory, evolutionary pressures, social pressures,  biological drives and even marketing and advertising.   Since many of these are covered elsewhere, and I review many in Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough, I’d like to focus on one reason that you don’t hear about but that can often play a significant role in destroying your commitments to quit drinking, lose weight, quit smoking, stop using internet pornography, exercise more, or any other major behavioral change: the promise itself.

As an example of this, let’s take a look at the promise to lose weight, a promise that most Americans have made to themselves at some point.  This is just an example, nearly any major behavioral change can be substituted.  Why do we make this promise to ourselves?  Obviously its because we want to lose weight?  Why is that?  Because we are overweight?  Simple, right?  Not quite.   For example, are we more overweight in January than in July?  It turns out that we aren’t.  So why aren’t we making “independence day resolutions?”    Why aren’t we making labor day resolutions?  What is it that really makes us promise to lose weight.  The answers are complex, but I just want to cover one aspect of the promise:  the proxy. 

The graph below comes from the biggest gainer blog.  In this graph, you can see that the peak of visits to the gym website (signaling intention to work out rather than actually working out) is in the early part of the new year.  Any gym owner can readily confirm this. 


If, however, you look at actual gym utilization, you’ll find that most members actually never use the gym.  The studies vary on this, but clearly gym memberships are grossly underutilized…as many as 2/3 of members never go.  The actual number of unique visitors to gyms is small fraction of the number of people who visit the websites.

Why promise you’re going to lose weight, and try to seal that promise with a gym membership, if you aren’t going to actually go?  Well that seems pretty obvious: because when make yourself that promise, you have every intention of following through.  This time is going to be different. This time you’re going to “force yourself.”  But do you really understand all the reasons why you are making yourself this promise?  Do you understand why you made the promise a few years ago and why you didn’t follow through?  Or have you told yourself a story about that (c.f. cognitive biases)? 

One of the many reasons we make promises to ourselves is to serve as proxies for actions.  Promises are easy, actions are hard.  Actions require expending energy.  Behavior changes are uncomfortable, and research shows that the more emotionally charged a behavior is (think weight loss, body image, and all the feelings that go along with it…think emotional eating), the more difficult it is to face and change.  Promises, on the other hand, require very little energy.   In fact, it may be the case that we evolved to learn to make promises to ourselves in order to sooth ourselves from the profound anxiety associated with facing these ego-threatening behavior changes.

When viewed this way, promises aren’t just easier than behavior changes, they are actually a symptom of dysfunctional behaviors.  In other words, when we are distressed about our body images, when we feel ugly, obese, overweight, lazy, sedentary and all the other emotionally-charged descriptors we use, we need some way to comfort ourselves.  Overweight patients of mine have told me that thin people simple won’t understand why they eat to comfort the anxiety of being overweight.  By the way, the truth about that is far more complex too…emotional eating addresses self-doubts and insecurities that are much deeper than simply weight but go to more primal requirements of security, safety, love and nurturing. 

A few quick observations will prove that you already know this.  Think of that person in the office who is always making promises and resolutions.  Always saying they are going to do something.  I’m talking about the person who does it so often that it’s really become something of a joke in the office, a “here-we-go-again.”  Is this person stupid?  Do they actually not realize that they are making these repeated promises?  Of course they do…a real heart-to-heart with them and and they’ll admit that in reality they are despondent…they just can’t seem to make the change.  Take a little time to really get to know them and you will see that it’s really a manifestation of fear and shame.     

So it’s not just that we make promises to ourselves as an alternative for action, but we’ll often make promises to ourselves to sooth the discomfort associated with a powerful unconscious belief that we cannot change, or that we don’t deserve to change.  What is that, but shame?  From this dynamic perspective, a promise can be a defense… (it may be helpful for you to learn about defenses such as reaction formation and displacement).

The (over) simplified cycle can go like this:  discomfort associated with unacceptable unconscious belief → self-promise →  reduction in anxiety → don’t need to change now → more discomfort later.   These promises (not all promises, but these specific types of promises) actually produce inaction. 

This is the type of promise that breaks itself.

Does Size Really Matter? How you can use context to control your food cravings.   Leave a comment

Does size really matter? When it comes to food cravings, you bet it does.  Numerous studies have shown…time and again…that the amount you eat is affected by how your food is presented, and what the context and environment are.  Simple changes in how your food is served can make a huge impact in how much you eat.  If you’re craving a particular food, and find yourself giving in, or if you want to eat a particular food but have more control over your portion size, you can use the science to your advantage.

Nearly everyone has heard that serving food on smaller plates can help you eat less.  The plate appears fuller and you eat less.  Ok, that’s very helpful, and you should do it.  But that’s just the beginning: there are many more actions you can take to help you reduce how much you eat when you crave a particular food.  We’re going to cover just a few of the many changes you can make to help control how much you eat of the foods you crave.

First, you can segment your food.  In a fascinating Yale University study of college undergraduates from May, 2012 performed by Andrew Geier, students who were eating tubes of potato chips, the participants ate 50% fewer chips when a different color potato chip was inserted every few chips.  For example, when participants ate tubes of chips that had a red chip every 10th chip, they ate half as many chips!  Furthermore, when they were later asked how many chips they had eaten, the participants who ate from segmented tubes recalled how much they ate more accurately.  You can use this to your advantage…if there is a food you mindlessly eat, or eat too much of, find a way to separate it into segments…you’ll eat less and your waistline will thank you.

It’s also important to look at your food.  A study from the December, 2010 issue of the journal Appetite reported that when subjects ate in the dark, and were served larger meals, they ate 36% more than those who were served smaller meals.  On a personal note, I had a similar experience when I “dined in the dark” in a restaurant in LA a few months ago.   So be sure to look at your food…which is yet another reason not to eat while watching TV or a movie.

There is a notable exception: exercise advertisements.  In a Dutch study of 125 subjects published in August of 2011, participants who watched exercise advertisements during their meal consumed 21.7% fewer calories than people who watched neutral commercials.  So if you are going to eat in front of the television, watch exercise-oriented television.  A 21 percent reduction in calorie intake is a big deal and really adds up over time.

Finally, choose your dining partner wisely.  In 2008 Lenny Vartanian from Syracuse University studied paired diners and found that the choice of partner greatly influenced how much participants ate, even though the affected study participants erroneously believed that taste and hunger were the driving factors.  If your business lunch partners are unhealthy eaters, you are at risk.  Change it up.

These are just a few of hundreds of changes you can make based on the science of craving that can impact how much you eat.  To learn more about how you can use the latest science to manage your cravings, check out our Facebook page and check out Craving: Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough.

Posted November 4, 2012 by Omar Manejwala, M.D. in Uncategorized