Musing on Diets: How to cultivate an active dislike for certain foods
[Content note: I am a non-psychologist delving into psychology without much research. Take that as a bad sign.]
Dave explained how he began to lose weight:
I avoided fast food, candy, processed snacks, heavy creams and other dairy products (not all) and, most importantly, made sure that the number calories I was taking in from my beverages was reduced to almost zero.
If you’re anything like me, you’re asking “Yes, I know that, but how do I actually give up those things reliably and forever?”
With the caveat that I haven’t researched this at all and my abs are best described as balloon-like, I submit that we make such choices per some form of the procrastination equation. According to the procrastination equation*, you will choose the option that has the highest value for the following computation:
Motivation = Expectancy * value / (impulsiveness * delay)
In general, we will do things that have high and certain returns. However, you will tend to discount those returns according to your personal level of impulsivity and any delay associated with the return.
To take an example of time delay, let’s look at whether you will eat a slice of cheesecake or stick to your diet, which probably frowns on cheesecake.
Cheesecake tastes good with a high probability, so expectancy and value are both high. And the value comes quickly making delay low.
On the other hand, people tend to place very high values on their health and appearance. Your expectancy of getting these rewards for sticking to your diet might be low, however, depending on how confident you are that you will get these rewards in return for following the diet. Homeostasis screws up our ability to reliably predict what turning down any one piece of food will do to us in the long run. Additionally, the rewards will likely come with a delay. You don’t see the weight come off the day you turn down the cheesecake. In fact, you don’t even reliably see weight come off even after a delay.
Nevertheless, outside of Vince Young, people don’t just eat cheesecake every chance they get. Across the globe, people often use willpower to turn down cheesecake.
You can use willpower to counter your impulsivity and choose your diet over the cheesecake. Using willpower, however, is metabolically taxing. The more willpower you use, the greater the pressure to relax and stop using it just like the longer you hold your breath, the more you feel the need to take your next breath.
Most of us think of ourselves as continuously choosing to do things for Reasons. If you were to watch a videotape of what you did all day, you could narrate each of your choices and reasons for them, but much of what you’d provide would be after-the-fact rationalizations. You might say you brushed your teeth because you wanted to clean them when in fact you brushed (or didn’t brush) because that action was a primed neural pathway with a low activation energy.
Let’s guess that the procrastination equation is responsible for 90% of your behaviors (System 1**), with willpower (a feature of System 2) shifting your choices for the remaining 10%. This means System 1’s choices dominate what you eat in the long run. For System 2 to win, it can’t just turn down cheesecake when it has control of your body. It has to outsmart System 1 and stop it from eating cheesecake as well. System 2 can turn down cheesecake every time, but it will be for naught once System 1 gets its inevitable 9 other opportunities.
So, don’t use System 2 precious computing cycles turning down cheesecake. System 2 time is too scarce to be spent that way.
All of System 2’s computing cycles should be spent setting things up so that System 1 can’t screw things up.
The key to strategy is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.
System 2 needs to think strategically. Rather than working on a task using willpower and assuming you will get there, you ought to choose so that even when you leave your body and System 1 is in your place, it will choose wisely.
According to classical life-hack theory, this means making sure unhealthy options aren’t available. Get rid of the unhealthy stuff from your fridge.
This isn’t always possible though, and there will always be temptations around.
System 1 isn’t hostile, and it doesn’t hate you. It just takes the easiest route. System 1 is water flowing downward. It might look reckless, but it’s just taking the most attractive option. It doesn’t know about System 2’s long-term plans. System 1 is an undisciplined, 4-year-old stranger who inhabits your body for long periods of time and just coasts on whatever activities are available before her. Like that guy in Memento, you need to plan ahead of time for when that stranger takes over.
For this reason, I think most anti-procrastination techniques deal with setting up the battlefield so that when System 1 re-takes your body, not everything will be lost. Eliminate distractions. Set up black-and-white rules. Etc. Again:
The key to strategy is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.
But what if we could more directly program System 1 to inform its preferences?
This solution is hinted at by Jennifer Dziura when asked how to motivate oneself to get motivated:
I have three answers: Disgust, Fear, and Revenge.
These sound like things that could perhaps be used to help direct the 4-year-old in charge of System 1.
System 1 makes automatic choices based on the equation above. If you can get your body to automatically generate different emotions for the options System 1 has to consider, then System 1 will make the right choice without expending any willpower or avoiding anyplace that serves cheesecake.
Consider that if you simply dislike cheesecake, it no longer requires willpower to turn it down. If you can feel a bit revolted by cheesecake, all the better.
I think this is what a lot of thin people I know have done. They are able to costlessly make choices that would require a lot of willpower on my part because they’ve convinced themselves unhealthy foods are undesirable even from a System-1 perspective.
These are the thin people who seemingly regard delicious-looking heavy deserts with disgust. They seem to genuinely feel they don’t want to eat them. “Heavy” foods make them feel unpleasant, so turning one down takes no willpower. Their distaste is genuinely felt and thus a choice that System 1 can be entrusted with. It is not an act of self-denial.
The rest of us require willpower on a minute-by-minute basis, which is why we are fat and miserable.
Same song, different venue: Mr. Money Mustache seems to revel in his money-saving strategies. Mowing his own lawn with a reel mower is something he seems to genuinely enjoy. The same goes for doing his own oil changes, which he must not do often, because here’s what he thinks about cars:
When you use a 3500-pound car to transport your 150-pound self around, 96 percent of the weight of that clump of matter is the car. You’re moving 25 times more junk around than you need to, and thus using 25 times more energy to do it. Imagine that you’re hungry for lunch, so you go to a restaurant. But you don’t just order yourself a blackened salmon salad for $15.00. You order twenty five salads for $375.00! Then, you eat one of them, and leave the other 24 blackened salmon salads, $360.00 worth of food, to get collected by the waiter and slopped unceremoniously into a big black garbage bag. All that fine wild-caught Alaskan Salmon, lovingly seasoned and grilled. All the fine crumbles of feta cheese, the mango salsa, diced green onion, shaved peppers, rich zingy dressing, and everything else the chef worked on for hours – plopped into the slimy garbage bag. This is exactly what you are doing, every time you drive!
And you’re not just wasting your own money, of course. You are wasting the gasoline that the rest of the world works so hard to produce, puncturing seabeds and spilling stadium-loads of oil into pristine wilderness areas as a necessary byproduct. Destroying coral reefs and flooding coastlines with your carbon emissions. Clogging roads and creating demand for roadway expansion, indirectly raising your own taxes. It’s a whole lot of badness we’re doing, every time we drive. It’s not just a matter of “Hey, it’ll only cost me ten bucks for the gas”. It’s a matter of choosing to be an asshole. I fully admit that I drive plenty of miles in cars too, and I too am being an asshole every time I do it. Other people think you’re being an asshole when you drive too, and you should be just a little bit embarrassed every time you are seen driving. I sure am.
The goal here is not to create negative stress in your life. Just acknowledge that whenever you turn the key, you need to say, “Here we go. I’m being an asshole again”.
Quite a rant. For the rest of us, I think we would regard driving as the high value, high expectancy option with little delay. That’s why we drive so often. Biking would be the low expectancy option with considerable delay before any benefits come.
This is very different from what the Mr. Money Mustache feels. For him, driving is a negative-value choice. I don’t think he feels tempted to drive rather than bike. For him, driving is a costly choice for System 1 to make, so it can be trusted to choose biking, no willpower required.
When he actually did buy a car, pay attention to how he describes it:
…I eventually did make the purchase, and I was content knowing that I got what was somebody’s $32,000 dream luxury van in 1999, and is really amazingly close to being as useful as a 2011 van.. for the pocket-change amount of $4800.
In no way does he admit to buying an older car as an act of self-denial. In other sections he admits to also having environmentalist reasons to avoid purchases in general and new purchases in particular. Buying a new car would thus be a negative-value choice, with the negative value felt immediately upon purchase. Again, System 1 gets this right because buying a new car would have made him feel bad. He moved to a place psychologically so that System 1 was working for him rather than against him.
All this is to say that you should probably still try to change the battlefield so that System 1 can make no wrong choices, but you can also try to modify System 1 directly by tying specific emotional responses to things you want to avoid.
The Buddhists have lovingkindness meditation, which can be used to nudge attitudes [free 9-minute sample]. Why not use a similar technique to attach negative attitudes to things we wish for System 1 to avoid?
Dziura suggests such a method:
[T]hink of what happens if you never achieve [your goal]. Make a list right now on your computer of about five bad things that would happen if you don’t pursue your goals.
Then imagine (really close your eyes and visualize) what might happen if those five bad things happen. Things could certainly slide into total fucking shit, no? How unacceptable is that to you? Add that to the file on your computer. Maybe with some arrows indicating causality!
Now, put those terrible, undesired consequences in the same mental category as shitting on the floor or living in a cardboard box: options that no longer receive your consideration.
That’s centered on the topic of goals, but I think you could use similar visualization exercises for more mundane things like foods. For me, spoiled milk is something that engenders disproportionate disgust. One time I encountered it and avoided milk for a few years thereafter. If I wanted to avoid a certain food permanently, I could visualize it being made with spoiled milk. Or if it is non-dairy, I could still imagine spoiled milk being poured on top of it or it all being mashed together. I’ll stop because I’m already grossing myself out by writing this. You might have your own triggers for programming System 1. Since the Food Symposium is still going on, feel free to share all your pustule-related imagery involving various foods in the comments.
Given the proper priming, I could make all the options for using my time undesirable and disgusting. I wouldn’t necessarily even have to lie to myself, though it might help. If I want to stop watching online TV shows, I could just visualize what would happen if I watched them excessively for the rest of my life. I could then try to trigger that visual when starting a video. With some repetitions of this technique, I’d probably stop.
- The Procrastination Equation is not ordinarily described as being computed for multiple competing options, but it seems natural to do so, so I’m going ahead with the idea.
** To my knowledge, dual process theory makes no mention of System 1 following the procrastination equation, or of System 2 being the only one that exerts willpower. Anyone who knows more about this is invited to provide illumination.