Want to eat less and not miss it?
That’s it. Just imagine eating in a very specific and detailed way. Do it several times in a row. Take a few minutes. Make it a vivid, intense, and thoughtful fantasy. Okay. Now, here’s your food.
If you’re like the folks in the Morewedge, Huh, and Vosgerau experiments published in the peer review journal, Science, you will eat less, a lot less compared to various control groups. How much less? At least a medium effect size, a 65/35 Windowpane effect meaning that you and anyone else in the room will see that and exclaim, “Wow, you didn’t like the chocolate?”
Morewedge et al. ran several experiments that simply varied what you thought about and how long you thought about compared to other conditions. For example, you’d look at a picture of food – chocolate bites or cheese cubes – then think about the food for a little bit or a lot. Then, you’d be given a chance to eat the food you’d just been thinking about.
For folks who’d thought long and hard about the food, they ate considerably less of the snack. A medium, 35/65 Windowpane effect. That’s an obvious practical difference, not the typical adjusting for “confounders” with huge sample sizes followed by those trivial effect sizes expressed with confusing rates, percentages, and kick line of zeros kind of effects. The researchers call it, Thought for Food.
How about that for New New Thing diet?
If you’re an old guy you might recall the impact of Joseph Wolpe‘s work with reciprocal inhibition that led directly into the behavior change revolution that then helped kill the Freudian talking cure. Wolpe reasoned from basic learning research (Pavlov, Watson, Skinner et al.) that you could pair antagonistic responses against each other, using the stronger to overcome the weaker. The practical upshot of this abstract reasoning is that, for example, if you deeply relax then visualize an anxiety provoking event like giving a public speech, you can reduce your anxiety during real future public speeches. This is called systematic desensitization (SD) and is a very common treatment for a wide variety of negative emotional responses.
The interesting part of SD is that cognitive, imaginary component. SD does not require that you are actually in a fear producing situation while you are at the same time in a deeply relaxed (non-hypnotic) state. You can produce the same beneficial effect by merely lying back in a recliner and imagining the scary thing. If you have a good imagination and can relax, SD will work.
Now, for me, that “good imagination” is another way of saying the Long Conversation in Your Head also known as Elaborative Processing from the Elaboration Likelihood Model. People engage in lots of self-generated thoughts, images, and sounds accompanied by feelings and behavior changes like posture shifts. Just intense elaboration on the object of thought.
While this is really fun and interesting research that pushes and combines concepts, everyone else is interested in the practical implications of Thought for Food: Obesity! Hey, talk about an easy, fun, and popular persuasion tactic for weight loss. Open up your shop. Advertise guaranteed results. Then after your customer’s check clears, you say:
Well, of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and because of those complications I don’t have much hope for Thought for Food as the Obesity Solution. However, you might see it on Oprah or Dr. Phil or that MD who runs around in his scrubs like he whooshed through the wrong door out of Surgery.
Consider the problems. Or actually, The Problem because after this One, nothing else really matters.
Number 1 with a Bullet: It’s all about self-control, baby. Do Thought for Food before every meal and you will eat less. Do Thought for Food every time you have a strong impulse to eat and you will eat less. Just do it, baby. And, that’s the killer problem with Thought for Food. You have to do it under your own control and if there was ever a behavior problem that is largely a self-control problem it is over-eating.
These lab studies include an obvious, untested, and uncontrolled independent variable: External observation. The presence of the experimenters functions as a kind of spy or monitor that keeps the participant on task. Even if the experimenter is not in the room while you are doing this, you know he’s back there somewhere, watching, counting, clickety clacking something on a keyboard and into a database. While the experimenter presence is a constant across all conditions in the experiment and thus controlled in that sense, for practical applications Thought for Food without External Observation will surely fail. You’re gonna need a Persuasion Box for that one.
As with so many tactics that change behavior in the lab, in the real world the problem of self control tends to destroy all those beautiful theory effects. You have to persuade yourself to do this every time in the real world, something conspicuously absent in the lab studies. Jeepers, if people had that kind of self control we’d already have won the War on Obesity. And the War on Tobacco. And Gambling. And All Other Self Control Behavior Problems. So, until you combine Thought for Food with an appropriate Persuasion Box, you have not won the War.
Now, here’s the fun practical challenge for you. How do you build a Persuasion Box that convinces people to evoke self-control and actually use Thought for Food before they eat?
Start with Attribution Theory because if you don’t handle their nexus of causality, you’ve got a problem, Houston.
P.S. Tangential Bonus Exposition from the Pointy Headed Professor: Recall my jabbering about the importance of the Long Conversation from the ELM in the Thought for Food effect? It’s the Conversation, Stupid, right? So, why doesn’t Freudian theory work? Hey, it’s got a ton of head work in it that constantly involves that Long Conversation in the Head. Shouldn’t that produce a ton of impact? Yeah. It does. But it’s the wrong impact. You have that detailed, rich, and nuanced psychosexual theory that drives the analysis, forcing clients to engage in all that head work to no good end other than thinking creatively about your life. The talking cure never points people directly at a desired change, the TACT if you will, and instead engages in a meandering, lit crit exercise, applying Freud’s fabulous inventiveness into your life. You never get out of the rabbit hole. Freud is a great example of All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere and All Bad Science Is Persuasive. He really believed his theory and loved it more with every failure. And he tried to prove it, not with science, but with persuasion.