Monday, February 22, 2010

'Shaming Your Way to Weight Loss"

The title belongs to economist Daniel Hamermesh. It leads his post about weight loss on the Freakonomics blog. Link here.

The incident that provoked the post is anecdotal. It does not present the result of a scientific or academic study. And yet, since economists tend to see human behavior in terms of cost, that is of rewards and punishment, the fact that Hamermesh's colleague is trying to control his appetite with shame merits some attention.

Especially since I have often defended the idea that fear of shame, not fear of guilt, is one of the most important motivating factors in human psychology.

For the record, when you use guilt to control your deviant impulses, you must be afraid of the punishment that would ensue upon your breaking the rules. But, if you figure out that you can pay the price or do the time, the deterrent effect of guilt diminishes.

Shame, however, is its own punishment. There is no price to pay for the loss of reputation that accompanies shame. Once you have compromised your reputation it is far more difficult to rebuilt it, to allow people to see you as reputable.

Here is the incident: an economist who tends to overindulge his love of chocolate-covered popcorn is controlling his passion by placing the treats in a colleague's office.

Hamermesh interpreted the behavior by suggesting that he was trying to limit his consumption by raising the cost of each treat. "Cost" in this case involved the number of extra steps he hadto take in order to access the popcorn.

Hamermesh saw a flaw in this system. Why would the economist not lower the cost by eating extra popcorn on each trip to his colleague's office.

The economist replied that he could not do so because it would be embarrassing to pig out in front of a colleague.

Thus, Hamermesh concludes that the fear of shame trumps opportunity cost as a deterrent to binging.

The moral of the story: if you have trouble controlling your appetite, eat with other people. If you are living alone, and tend to pig out in front of the refrigerator, try taping one of your binges, then replay it later. Actively visualizing oneself behaving badly is an excellent deterrent to bad behavior.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

shame. and low-carb (fructose).
"calories in/calories out" is probably insufficient for longterm weightloss.
thanks as always.

Dan B.