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Dieting and Behavior: Concepts That Shed Light (And Possibly Pounds)

Roy Bendor Cohen
January 18, 2024

My life has been filled with many accomplishments: a fulfilling career that combines my interests such as innovation, education and research; a spouse who is also a true friend; two smart, funny, and kind-hearted children; good friendships and meaningful relationships; relative financial stability; and a Dyson vacuum cleaner. 

However, there is one achievement of which I am not particularly proud, and that is obtaining an (informal) Master's degree in the field of diet– a field in which I have invested more hours of thought and energy than in any other. I am certain that despite not having experienced everything myself, I have read, heard, and thought about everything there is to know about diets. 

The popular cabbage diet in the 80's, protein-based, carbohydrates-based, keto, serotonin-based, fruit diet, juice diet, diet using guided imaginary, calorie counting, points method, snacks diet, ice diet, fasting and more - I have read in depth about every single diet you can imagine, thought about it seriously, and sometimes, even dreamed about it. If I could convert the energy of thought I have invested in the subject from my early twenties to the present day (more than twenty years), the world might be able to break its dependence on destructive energy for some time. And, like I said, I am not proud.

Having confessed my shameful life enterprise, I have connected some behavioral insights related to the diets I have followed over the years. Some of these insights have helped me to lose some weight or adopt better life habits, some have helped me to identify manipulations employed by the diet industry, and some have just made me think (did you know you burn calories by thinking?). Therefore, I am sharing some of these behavioral insights now for the benefit of the public. 

Before I begin, a little background information from some serious and smart people about all this behavioral stuff...

According to traditional economics, people are rational and make rational decisions that maximize their own benefit (is anyone else buying this?). Yet, as you may have guessed, the reality is a completely different story: we, as humans, do not always make the best choices

We often end up paying more, enjoying less, and making decisions that do not lead us to the best outcome. Though not necessarily rational, these behaviors are consistent, predictable, and follow certain recurring patterns. These patterns of human behavior are a result of cognitive biases. Understanding these biases provides insight into some of our behaviors. 

The diet industry, like many other industries, makes use of these insights–sometimes to convince us to use and pay for a particular diet, sometimes to make us stick to it. Here are some behavioral thoughts that relate to the topic of dieting, not necessarily in any specific order:

Let's start with what is perhaps the most significant bias in this whole tale of the diet industry, namely the bias of optimism, or wishful thinking. Humans tend to be overly optimistic. We overestimate our chances of success, and underestimate our chances of failure. The long history of people’s experience (including my own) with countless types of diets should have by now indicated that there is no reason to think “this time” will be any different. I believe a Zen diet (there really is such a diet... look it up) will be successful. And the fact that many around me have failed in the Zen diet in the past does not permeate the optimism bias. For me, this time, it will be different. Do I seem like I’m thinking wishfully? 

The present bias also contributes to the world of diets, as we tend to attach great value to choices that are close to us in the present over those that occur further in the future. If we offer someone a choice between  $50 today and $70 in a month, they will most likely choose to take the $50, even though it is not the rational decision. In the same person's perspective, $50 today will surely be received, but $70 in the future may end up in someone else’s hands. Of course, this person understands that they will be the same person in a month, but since we are alienated from our future-self, we don’t act today in the benefit of our future-self.  In the same vein, it would be rational to adopt healthy and long-term eating habits, but yet, I am not doing so today. My future-self will surely benefit from this, but I want to be able to look at my present-self and see a slim woman. The disconnection here is that my future-self is an abstract idea that I can’t relate to presently.  To address this bias, diet companies often use before and after pictures to help their prospective clients visualize themselves as being lean, vibrant, and healthy in the future. 

Yet another behavioral concept that the diet industry uses is that of habit formation. There are areas in our lives where we must make decisions continuously, and there are those in which we have already made a decision once, and thus, we don't need to keep making it. For example, when we sign a contract for a new job that requires us to report to the office every day at eight, we basically decided that as long as we are employed, we will do the same thing. Once we have invested time and energy into making this decision, it no longer concerns us. But, what should we wear to work every day? Most of us make this decision day-in and day-out (the most successful ones decide this the night before).

Our cognitive capacity is burdened by frequently making decisions. The popular fasting diet (known as intermittent fasting) was one of my diet incarnations. As a general rule, for 16 hours, you do not eat anything, and for 8 hours you can eat almost anything (so long as you do not eat for 8 consecutive hours.). I persevered with this diet more than any other. Taking part in the diet meant that I did not have to decide what to eat or when, and in turn, it freed me from my usual concerns of making many small decisions about what and when to eat. Instead, these frequent decisions were replaced by one big one. 

The actor-observer bias also applies to the diet world. When you fail to complete a given task, do you assign it to be a result of external factors? For example, you may attribute it to the fact that you weren’t provided with the necessary data in a timely manner, or your computer broke down, or your manager failed at properly explaining the purpose of the task, etc. If someone else fails to perform a task, it is usually because he is lazy, a procrastinator,  or simply not talented enough, all of which are internal factors. Thus, the participant viewer bias is the tendency to  attribute our own actions to external causes, whereas we attribute the actions of others to their internal causes. Given my phenomenal knowledge about diets, I should have been a top model by now. I explain my failure to lose one gram to external factors, such as crappy genetics, and I completely ignore internal factors, such as gluttony or lack of discipline (in my head,that’s only what affects weaker people).

Unfortunately, my behavioral insights have had a larger impact on my mind than my scale. One day, I hope that a study will uncover a connection between academic curiosity and calories burned. In the meantime, I'll follow the next diet trend.

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