It is almost impossible for most breathing humans to resist noshing into a passing chocolate brownie sundae if one is dangled before their eyes. Willpower won’t work and we can’t lock all the chocolate brownie sundaes in the world into a cupboard (they’d all melt). No: the prospective follower of No Sugar (say) must re-mould their self-image and become that kind of person who doesn’t eat chocolate brownie sundaes, no matter how tempting they might be to others. There can be no struggle any longer: the chocolate brownie sundae is simply of no special interest. The difficulty, of course, is how to become that person.
Ben Fletcher at the University of Hertfordshire might have the answer. He used a neat cognitive trick to help a group of 55 healthy, overweight and obese people lose an average of five kilos each over the course of three months. Fletcher and his team simply asked the volunteers to spend a month trying new activities unrelated to dieting or exercise, such as interacting differently with a person, not watching television for a day or taking an alternative route to work. The intervention was called Do Something Different. The hypothesis was that these new activities would “expand their behavioural repertoire”, which would have a knock-on effect for their weight by disrupting “the chains of habits that maintain unhealthy living”.
If habits make up at least a third of all our daily actions, then disrupting such chains will surely fundamentally change who we are, and as a result who we believe we are. By focussing on their habitual behaviour rather than their food, Do Something Different “adds a sense of agency in that individuals became more aware of themselves and of being in control of their actions”. Not only did the participants lose weight during the month-long Do Something Different intervention, they continued to lose weight for two months after – and those who were also dieting lost no additional weight. The success of the intervention was as a result of increased behavioural flexibility: just the sort of learning that positive constraints foster. If you can’t walk, then you must do something different: you must run, skip and dance.
We all act according to the characteristics of the sort of person we believe we are. If you believe you’re conscientious, you’ll clear up after dinner. If you believe you’re a writer, you’ll write. If you believe you’re a criminal, you’ll crime. If you do something that doesn’t align with who you think you are, you feel something psychologists call cognitive dissonance, philosophers call bad faith and the rest of us call shame. Fortunately, the brain is superb at dodging this nasty feeling, merrily distorting reality to align with our self-image if need be. That’s why Tony Blair was able to believe that Weapons of Mass Destruction existed in Iraq, regardless of the evidence, even long after his own inspectors had come back empty-handed. He needed to believe a different reality for the sake of his own self-image as a just leader, so he did: the confirmation bias in action.
While this mental flexibility, or post-rationalising, is often exploited by our guilty dark side, our angels can also use it, but in reverse. We can mould our self-image until we believe that we are that person who doesn’t eat sugar. It’s pre-rationalising of the same sort that helped Tal Shafir make people feel happy, sad or fearful by getting them to do various two minutes choreographies. Doing something different, even something as small as changing your route to work, shows you that you could also become someone different in a more significant way: you are not stuck with your habits. And, lo and behold, when the chocolate brownie sundaes are passed round, you smile politely and reach for the cheese. You have become a different you.
Fletcher, Ben (C), Jill Hanson, Nadine Page, and Karen Pine. ‘FIT – Do Something Different: A New Behavioral Program for Sustained Weight Loss’. Swiss Journal of Psychology 70, no. 1 (January 2011): 25–34. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000035.
This post is an extract from the book You Are What You Don’t by David Charles. Please share, please credit!