Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The 7 Practices of Highly Effective Dieters

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Every year millions of people make resolutions to lose weight, but between 1/3 and 2/3 of people regain the weight lost (and then some) within the first year. In the US and Europe alone, the diet industry makes over 150 billion dollars yearly (Dulloo & Montani, 2015). Why do we have trouble keeping the weight off? Why do we have trouble reaching our goal in the first place?

It seems as if every year there is a new weight-loss trend. Be it restricted caloric intake (less calories in than out), clean-eating (eating only whole foods rich in micronutrients), or intuitive eating (eating habits based on satiety alone), studies show that metabolic changes and uncontrolled eating following yo-yo dieting leads to weight gain (Hill, 2004). In other words, we take one step forward, and two steps back…

So, let’s put the dieting journal and nutrition books aside and take a page out of the book of behavioural science.

7 Practices to Put in Place to Lose Weight:

1.     Make a Public Commitment: Post your desire to lose weight as your Facebook status. Tell every waiter that comes to your table recommending a dish. Tell your mother, tell your friends, tell your dog.

Studies consistently show that having individuals go on record publically regarding a viewpoint, creates a foundation for consistency and commitment (Cialdini, 2007). In fact, in the Korean War, US war prisoners were asked to write an essay listing the ways in which Americans were not perfect, later broadcasted by Chinese soldiers in the war camps. Not wanting to be seen as inconsistent, this public statement, whether or not a genuine measure of their attitude towards their country, increased rates of collaboration (Burgess & Turner, 2007). Once an open declaration has been made, we are socially and internally compelled to support it. When charities knocked from door to door collecting money and volunteers, having answered “yes” when asked if willing to helping out with an event caused a 700% increase in volunteering when the American Cancer Society came calling (Sherman, 1980). Similarly, voting rates increase when civilians are asked if they intend to vote (Greenwald, 1987).  We have a tendency to want to look consistent – to not be called a “flip-flopper”. Tell everyone you’re on a diet. The looming look of judgment when you reach for the breadsticks will hold you accountable. Tisk Tisk.

2.     Write Down Your Weight Loss Goal: Put it on paper.

Getting customers to fill-out purchase agreements themselves rather than having the salesperson do it for them yields more commitment to the purchase (Cialdini, 2007). The aforementioned essays were more powerful in the prisoner of war camps during the Korean war because they were written down. Participants asked to submit written testimonials for a prize draw were more committed to the number they wrote down, and valued the product more (Cialdini, 2007). There is a power to written statements. Write down how many pounds you want to lose this week. Put pen to paper

3.     Effort Justification: Spend some money, make a detailed plan, clean out your kitchen – put your blood, sweat and tears into it.

The more effort we put into a goal, the more committed we are. As is seen by hazing practices across Greek fraternities in the US, putting hard work [physical (i.e. pain) or emotional (i.e. embarrassment)] not only increases compliance rates, but causes us to view our goal/ behaviour as more justifiable and more valuable (Maich, 2013). In Thaler & Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge, Sunstein shared his weight-loss method with his readers, whereby he promised a colleague he would lose weight and keep it off, by holding himself accountable financially. Setting a weekly weight loss goal, he paid his colleague a large sum of money each week whereby, if he met his goal, he would get it back; if not, his colleague could donate the money to charity (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Weight gain meant financial loss.

4.     Do it with others: Join a weight-loss group, join a runner’s club, ask you friends and family to jump on the weight loss bandwagon.

It is important to surround yourself with like-minded people. Research shows, that we are  more likely to buy insurance from a seller we deem similar to us (Smith, 1998). We are more likely to give money to people dressed more similarly to us than differently (Bull, & Gibson-Robinson, 1981). In other words, according to the social attraction theory: “birds of a feather, flock together” (Byrne et al., 1971) We assume that they have a similar mind-set, similar interests, values, and background. Thereby, we engage more with similar people, because we expect them to like us. If we like ourselves and they’re similar to us, they must like us too (Lydon, Jamieson, & Zanna, 1988)! We tend to move towards people of similar hobbies, interests, and views because we assume it will reaffirm and validate our own. By that logic, we are more likely to agree with and take on board the advice and recommendations of like-minded people. Gaining support from people you have a better interpersonal connection with (due to the similar goal you self) to validate and reaffirm your motivations and justifications for your goals will provide you with the environment necessary to achieve success. Join a weight loss group to help you stay on track, and make new, similar friends while you’re at it. Buy one get one free!

5.     Reciprocity: Create an interdependent network. Make yourself feel obligated to someone, make them feel obligated to you.

Make a deal with a close friend or family member. Ask them to join a gym with you, and in return you will give them a ride to the gym and an energy drink at each session (or something anything else have to offer that is worth more to them than you). Even better, make it a friend who cannot drive and you are their only form of transport. In other words, if you don’t go, they can’t go, so you’re hampering both your progress and theirs. Under the rule of reciprocity, if they’re making themselves and their time available to you (making a concession), you will feel obliged to reciprocate (by holding up your end of the bargain) (Cialdini, 2007). In the end, you get the gym partner you need to motivate you, and they get something in return. Win-win

6.     Give yourself a time frame: urgency.

We are all guilty of the words “I’ll start on Monday”. Cialdini suggests that, under the scarcity principle, when a product is of limited availability or available for a limited amount of time, the time pressure we feel, combined with the chance of losing a freedom to obtain something increases our likelihood of purchase (Cialdini, 2007). By that same logic, associate your weight loss goal with a sense of urgency. How to do that? Enter yourself in a competition requiring you to be in a certain weight-class (bodybuilding, wrestling, etc.), hire a personal trainer for a select number of weeks, book a holiday on the beach 12 weeks from your start date. You no longer have time on your side. You no longer have time to waste. You’ve created a sense of urgency where the events coming up in your life are contingent on your losing that weight. Go go go…

7.     Hire a professional: authority.

We obey people in uniform. Whether it’s a confederate in an experiment holding a clipboard and wearing a lab coat asking you to shock your fellow man (Milgram, 1963), or an actor posing as a doctor to recommend a product (Hofling et al., 1966), or a waiter making a recommendation in the restaurant (Cialdini, 2007), we obey figures we view as authorities. We assume they know best and put our decisions in their hands. Having a friend push you in the gym is motivating, sure – but having a professional trainer whose job it is to take control of your weight loss journey may help you stick to your goal even further. We think they know best. We’ve given them our money and put our goals into their hands. Have self-control issues? Let them take control.

Are you ready to commit?
Good luck!

Bull, R., & Gibson-Robinson, E. (1981). The influences of eye-gaze, style of dress, and locality on the amounts of money donated to a charity. Human Relations34(10), 895-905.

Byrne, D., Gouaux, C., Griffitt, W., Lamberth, J., Murakawa, N., Prasad, M., ... & Ramirez III, M. (1971). The ubiquitous relationship: Attitude similarity and attraction: A cross-cultural study. Human Relations24(3), 201-207.

Burgess, R., & Turner, S. (2000). Seven key features for creating and sustaining commitment. International Journal of Project Management18(4), 225-233.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (pp. 173-174). New York: Collins.

Dulloo, A. G., & Montani, J. P. (2015). Pathways from dieting to weight regain, to obesity and to the metabolic syndrome: an overview. Obesity reviews16(S1), 1-6.

Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology72(2), 315.

Hill, A. J. (2004). Does dieting make you fat?. British Journal of Nutrition92(S1), S15-S18.

Hofling, C. K., Brotzman, E., Dalrymple, S., Graves, N., & Pierce, C. M. (1966). An experimental study in nurse-physician relationships. The Journal of nervous and mental disease143(2), 171-180.

Lydon, J. E., Jamieson, D. W., & Zanna, M. P. (1988). Interpersonal similarity and the social and intellectual dimensions of first impressions. Social cognition6(4), 269.

Maich, K. H. (2013). Reducing Cognitive Dissonance Through Effort Justification: Evidence From Past Studies and Daily Experience. Western Undergraduate Psychology Journal1(1), 11.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of abnormal and social psychology67(4), 371.

Sherman, S. J. (1980). On the self-erasing nature of errors of prediction. Journal of personality and Social Psychology39(2), 211.

Smith, J. B. (1998). Buyer-seller relationships: similarity, relationship management, and quality. Psychology and marketing15(1), 3-21.

            Thaler Richard, H., & Sunstein Cass, R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness.

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