Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beware of the hot zone

I find myself in the midst of a book first published in 2008 that has been completely captivating me.  The book is Nudge, written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.  Thaler is a economics professor at the University of Chicago and Sunstein is a law professor at Harvard (formerly at the Univeristy of Chicago).

If you will indulge me a little bit of geekery...  I went to the University of Chicago to get my MBA, and I fell in love with the place.  It was the first time I was every truly drawn into intellectual pursuit [my days of overly socially stimulated campus Falstaff (see two posts ago) were now firmly behind me].  In particular, I found myself fascinated with economic theory.  More than most business schools, Chicago placed a lot of emphasis on economic theory and math, and it was known as a pretty nerdy place.  I fit right in.

The University of Chicago is known as a pretty opinionated place when it comes to economic theory.  Underpinning much of this economic theory was the concept of the economic man, a mythical fellow who always made rational decisions.  I wanted to think of myself as an upstanding economic man, so this too had much appeal to me.  

Around the time I was attending, this horribly sacrilegious guy named Richard Thaler was joining the faculty.  He completely flew in the face of the at-the-time prototypical Chicago economist in that he focused much of his energy in how humans made flawed or biased or herd-like decisions on a range of subjects including savings, investments, etc.  He had the unmitigated gall to suggest that the fully functioning economic man was not necessarily a model for how humans act in all circumstances.  I refused to take his class as I saw him as kind of a theoretically impure degenerate who failed to hew to the economic man model.  I didn't know of Sunstein, but given that he was in the law school, that's not a total shock.

Nearly 20 years later, I find myself fascinated by Thaler and his area of exploration.  It would be hard not to given my last 10 years plus at Weight Watchers.  Thaler is part of a new generation of behavioral economists who are breaking open fascinating ground in a wide range of subjects.

Which brings me to the book.  The basic tenant of the book is that by better understanding the biases that humans put into their decision making process, one can seek to design systems that nudge them toward better outcomes.  We at Weight Watchers come from a long line of nudgers, so how could I not now see him as a kindred spirit?

One topic the authors delve into is the subject of Automatic vs. Reflective systems of the mind.  Basically, it states that the mind operates on two levels:  one is instinctive and automatic and the other is planned and analytic.  We need both as we would otherwise have no way of making the many thousands of decisions we make in our incredibly complicated day-to-day world.  Taken at the extreme, I'm very glad that I don't have to weigh the pro's and con's of breathing or whether to laugh at a good joke.  At the same time, if I was instinctive 100% of the time, I would probably be running through the streets of Manhattan naked right now.

When it comes to food, it's pretty easy for me to see my Automatic system in action.  It is the part of my brain that leads to mindless eating.

In one particularly fascinating part of the book Thaler and Sunstein refer to cold states (i.e., food is not in front of us) vs. hot states (we have a bowl of nuts in our lap) of the mind.  As they delicately put it, "For most of us, however, self-control issues arise because we underestimate the effect of arousal." They continue, "When in a cold states, we do not appreciate how much our desires and our behavior will be altered when we are 'under the influence' of arousal."  This is what another economist, George Lowenstein, labels the hot-cold empathy gap.

Say what?  My interpretation:  we humans place too much stock in our own sense of will power.  When we get under the spell, we can often fall to pieces.  Want an example?  As always, I'm happy to oblige with one of my favorites...

I was flying back from Brussels to NY this past Thursday.  I told myself the following things before I got on board:  no wine, not nuts, only low-fat dishes, and NO CHEESE PLATES.  I got sort of far.  I didn't graze in the airport lounge.  I said no thanks to the pre-flight drinks.  I had a diet coke as a pre-lunch drink.  Then something happened.  Every single person around me ordered a glass of wine.  Then the flight attendant put a small bowl of nuts in front of me.  What did I do?  I did what I always do on transoceanic flights.  I totally succumbed to my "arousal state".  I had everything they gave me, and then I fell asleep.  My hot state showed its complete and utter dominance.  My only redeeming quality was that I said "no" to the snack offered at the end of the flight.

What's the moral of all of this?  I can't try to beat my own brain.  If I test myself too much, I'm going to periodically run into trouble.  Herein lies the value of controlling my environment.  I can't get aroused by what I don't have in front of me.  The best way to avoid a "hot state" is to surround oneself with cool, icy objects.

Business class on an airplane is borderline unsolvable for me.  The whole process of being strapped to a chair for 8 hours and then surrounded by other people succumbing to their own hot states is an awful lot to overcome.  Frankly, that's OK.  I travel a lot, but the total number of meals involved are manageable if this remains my primary weak area.  I will keep at trying to address this issue, but I suspect I should prioritize my efforts on fixing the other parts of my environments that are more controllable.

I got home to CT that night to an empty house (family was in North Carolina).  The first thing I did was jump into my car and outfit the house with a bunch of fruits and healthy snacks.  I stayed "cold" for the next few days, and felt much better for it.

My golden rule in weight loss and maintenance (for myself, anyway) is to accept the limitations of my own will power.  I cannot rely on it always being there for me.  Planning and environmental control are the keys to my long term success.  That and apparently taking more cold showers.




  1. Excellent, though-provoking post. I need to make my enviroment much cooler too. I find my willpower lacking a lot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  2. Great post! I'll have to pick that book up, it makes a lot of sense. That's why I love that WW has those extra weekly points -- knowing that my "hot zone" is in a restaurant, I save all those extras for the weekend so that I can eat out and order guilt-free.

  3. Cheers to you too -- with the "Middle Sister" wine that my younger sister bought me for Easter. Hot zone with a lingering smile :) Thanks for an interesting post...

  4. David great post! I had a bad moment at a brunch because 'it was there'. I did OK in the beginning but 'lost it' at the end with the multitude of desserts and bread I had to chose from. I still did ok in the end but I too know myself and know I don't have a ton of self control when it comes to certain situations. At home it's a different story and it's all the really good days of eating and exercise that really matter. Keep writing!

  5. You are so right for the past 5 weeks I have been buying Tate's Chipless Cookies and Whole Foods organic oatmeal cookies. These put me in a hot mess and I fold every single time. I have to say bye bye to them for a while they have become now a staple every day instead of a planned treat. Thanks for splashing COLD water on my cookie parade.

  6. Well-written post, and so true. Now I know why I have occasional outbreaks of uncontrolled grazing...I need to make my own environment much "colder".

  7. Interesting information, although I think inherently it is something we all already (or should already) know. Thank you for sharing. Good reality check.

    Re: "Business class on an airplane is borderline unsolvable for me." Suggestion - FLY COACH!!! Trans-oceanic flights are not nearly as 'hot' in the back of the plane. ;)

    ~Lori (aka Firepenguin)

  8. Everything in moderation INCLUDING moderation!one has to deal with hot zones daily,fully appreciating that it is a "hot zone" and not giving in to it is a remarkable accomplishment!but you can't eternally deny, or you will never fully enjoy...give yourself one flight to fully (and guiltlessly) savor the wine and the nuts....just not every time...hard to take the guilt out of it, but that in itself is an act of willpower...

  9. Would the above be the famed emma of spinning class? ;o)

  10. Behavioral Economics- Love it - If you haven't you MUST read the Freakomics books - they are brilliant and the economist is another University of Chicago Alum