The puzzle that is dietary discipline4 min read . Updated: 13 Sep 2012, 09:59 PM IST
You plan to go on a diet, but your conviction crumbles when faced with a sinful chocolate pastry
Most of us have trouble sticking to a diet, but not the young girls of Gujarat. Chief minister Narendra Modi kicked off a controversy when he told The Wall Street Journal in August that one reason his state has high malnutrition levels is because it is a middle-class state, and the middle class is “more beauty-conscious than health-conscious". So he gave the example of young girls who would rather fight with their mothers than drink milk. Modi baiters quickly went on the attack. I have no idea how much truth there is to what the Gujarat chief minister said, though I wish more attention is also given to his other explanation for persistent malnutrition despite rising incomes—Gujarat is a vegetarian state.
Gujarati girls seem to be giving more importance to their immediate beauty than their long-term health, according to Modi. Being charmed by immediate gratification is a common problem in human life. As I read the Modi interview, I was reminded of a fascinating idea from economist George Akerlof, who won the Nobel Prize in 2001, on why human beings procrastinate, why we postpone household chores, fail to stick to a diet, do not save enough for retirement, watch TV rather than finish our homework, or find it hard to kick addictive habits.
Akerlof was drawn to this problem after a personal experience. He was in India on an assignment during the 1960s, and his friend Joseph Stiglitz visited him. Stiglitz, who later shared the Nobel with Akerlof, left behind a box of clothes. “Each morning...I woke up and decided that the next day would be the day to send the Stiglitz box," Akerlof wrote in a 1991 paper. And so it went month after month till the box was eventually sent a few weeks before Akerlof left India, carried by a common friend who was travelling to the US.
Akerlof tried to show that such procrastination was not a just a human oddity; it was an important flaw hard-wired into our brains. The central problem is what psychologists call salience, because of which “individuals attach too much weight to salient or vivid events and too little weight to non-salient events", Akerlof wrote.
One example he gave was of a person seeking to buy a new car. His reading of several consumer surveys had made him decide on a Volvo, till he met an acquaintance at a cocktail party who went on to narrate how his brother-in-law had had a terrible time with his Volvo. That was the experience of one random consumer compared with all the positive reports he had read earlier, yet the vividness of the cocktail party conversation led him to change his car purchase decision.
The importance of salience in our choices also leads to procrastination. You plan to go on a diet, but your conviction crumbles when faced with a sinful chocolate pastry. Its vivid image overpowers your more hazy ideas about how trim you will look after several months of dietary discipline. So you bite into the pastry while making a mental note that you will begin your diet tomorrow, only to be faced with yet another salient temptation the next day. And so it goes on, little procrastinations leading to bad health—or inadequate savings or tobacco addiction or not finishing a project.
The solutions that some behavioural economists have offered to this problem are also interesting. Let us stick to the dietary dilemma. Some of the best answers are collated on the Nudge blog (nudges.org), maintained by economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, following their book by the same name, which examines how humans can be nudged to take the right decisions.
One fascinating section of the blog focuses on cafeteria design: How do you arrange food so that people eat healthy? The solutions offered are elegant in their simplicity. Shine extra light on the fruits. Put a mirror in front of the sugary donuts. Keep the salads within easy reach while ensuring that users have to reach out for the fried stuff. Create separate payment lanes for soft drinks and desserts. Shrink plate sizes so that the portions look bigger. List the fried chicken in the middle of the menu, with the roasted meat on top and the wilted greens at the bottom.
Another way out is through individual commitment devices to help you resist temptation. One example of such a device is to promise to send money to a charity every time you eat stuff you should not have. A more dramatic commitment device was used by game theorist Barry Nalebuff, who told his students one year that he would teach the final lecture in a swimsuit in case he did not drop 15 pounds (around 7kg) by the end of the course (he did not end up facing his students in a swimsuit, by the way). Commitment devices have flaws, especially the fact that you get dependent on them rather than cultivating self-discipline. For a clear exposition on how commitment devices help and hinder, I would recommend a superb TED talk by psychologist Daniel Goldstein on the battle between your present and future self.
I often wonder how many of these solutions can be adapted for our homes. Readers are invited to write in with their experiences.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.
Write to Niranjan at email@example.com