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Column: How to lose weight with economics, and why it’s so damn hard

As all but the thinnest among us know too well, a diet is almost impossible to sustain. In the midst of one myself, I am realizing how well economic concepts describe the problem — and the solution. Let me start by trying to peer into my own head with the help of economic psychologist George Ainslie.

Ainslie looks inside my head — and the heads of all humans — from what he calls the “picoeconomic” point of view. You and I are made up of various subconscious inner “selves,” he writes in a book that has influenced my thinking as much as any, “Breakdown of Will.” Those inner selves, shaped by evolution and our environment, compete with each other for control of the organism: the illusory unitary “I” each of us thinks s/he is.

At any given moment, the winning “self” is the one that provides you with the most value or satisfaction — what economics calls “utility.” And that winning self then drives our behavior for the moment. The “decision” process, as we like to think of it, is really automatic. Because the decision is made by what goes on internally between these selves and is ultimately about utility, Ainslie calls his mode of analysis picoeconomics, by which he means micro-microeconomics — at the most basic level of decision-making.

So what does this have to do with a would-be diet? Well, besides being a theorist, Ainslie is a practicing psychiatrist and his practice has long focused on addiction and, as he puts it, the “successive motivational states within the person.” Our multiple selves, that is.

As evidence, Ainslie points to the alcohol addict who takes Antabuse one day to induce nausea if s/he takes a drink the next. Today’s self is trying to “outwit” tomorrow’s, you might say. Or, to put it in dietary terms, the person who, like me, vows not to snack while on the phone, yet opens the fridge, phone in hand when “his” guard is down. In both cases, different inner selves are at work, duking it out every waking moment. When the “rational self”, which resides in the prefrontal cortex, is at the helm, the alcoholic takes the medicine and I take the pledge. But later, when the hooch or fridge beckon, another urge kicks in. And the closer the temptation, the harder to resist.

Okay, having read Ainslie, I thought I understood who was undermining my diets, past and present: what you might call my evolutionary “stodge self.” This “me” presumably evolved in the Pleistocene when it behooved humans to stuff themselves after a kill, not knowing when their next prey would appear on the plate. No surprise there; it’s what bears are programmed to do when they load up before hibernation; birds, before migration. No wonder dieting is so tough. But Ainslie points out that “overvaluation of the present is much more general” than anything having to do with a diet.

Indeed this is the diet dilemma, the dilemma of delayed gratification writ large. In Ainslie’s own words for this column:

“Like all animals, we have been wired by evolution to over-value the immediate future. We’re the only animal that gets in trouble from that, because other animals are born with instincts that take care of their future planning—to hoard, build dams, etc. With our human farsightedness we can see why we should want to limit what we eat, especially now that there are lots of merchants inventing tempting foods to sell us. But we can see also that there will be times when the pleasure of an immediate snack will seem greater than the little harm it would do. Furthermore we learn that there will be a lot of those times, so the little harms will add up to weighing too much.”

This, of course, is the eternal quandary of resisting temptation and therefore of dieters everywhere.

What I’ve realized a month or so into the struggle, however, is that it becomes more and more difficult, the longer I try to desist, and economics illuminates the problem.

Using “utility” as the measure, the diet has at first real positives to compensate for the enormous “disutility” of not eating those snacks.

One positive: increased pride as you see the results — on the scale or, in my case, in the recovered ability to button pants without performing the abs exercise known as the stomach vacuum.

Two: the pleasure of novelty. In dieting, I’ve been doing something new and different. It’s been kind of interesting.

But the problem with both these utilities is that they’re subject to that Debbie Downer of economics, diminishing returns. We all lose more weight in the beginning than later. To put it graphically, the downward curve of weight loss flattens out and then, at some point, begins to drop. And compounding this loss of utility from diminishing weight loss is the rapidly diminishing return to novelty. After a while, that is, the diet just isn’t new anymore — by definition. After awhile longer, it isn’t interesting at all.

So what does an addiction expert like George Ainslie advise? That you and I up the ante on the diet by trying to convince our “selves” — and anyone else who might listen — that our “credibility” is at stake here; that if we stop dieting, we will “fail” and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous humiliation. In the war between our selves, the goal is to hike the disutility — the cost — of falling off the diet wagon. In Ainslie’s language, we draw a “bright line” much as alcoholics do when promising never to have even one more drink, ever, and joining support groups to help enforce the promise.

Or as Ainslie put it in his communique to me, elaborating on an earlier draft of this column: “What the diet gives you is credibility: If you see yourself always following it, you can believe that you’ll become thinner.” And then you very well might. At the risk of overwhelming you with theory, here’s a bit more of his master’s voice.

This diet solution “should be simple,” Ainslie continued, “except our over-valuation of the immediate future means that we can’t trust ourselves. We’re two different consumers: one who gets more utility from present comfort and one who gets more utility from the long term. We’re each a different one of them, at successive times, depending on whether or not we’re in the grip of a temptation. The long-term self can’t just overrule his/her present-oriented opponent—evolution seems not to have had time enough to develop such a function for humans. Rather the long-term self has to get its way by offers or threats, as if bargaining in a marketplace. And that’s picoeconomics—the eternal struggle within. It can be complicated, but the most important transaction can be seen in the skill of enforcing a diet.

“We’ll keep being tempted to make exceptions for snacks ‘just this once’ until we can understand each choice as a test case for what we can expect our future selves to choose. That perception puts the success of the whole diet on the line every time we face a food that the diet forbids. Then immediate temptations get overshadowed by the whole value of long-term success, a success we can’t expect to achieve if we see ourselves cheat. Of course, a short-term self can often see how a present choice is NOT a test case, and thus evade the diet.”

Diet tips: Load up on reminding your long-term self of its benefits

Besides trying to convince “myself” that to fall off the wagon is to lose credibility, I’ve also tried to increase the value of long-term success by reminding “myself” that less weight is good for my ACL-repaired knee, for my once-attacked heart, for my speed on a tennis court; that sugar and carbs like bread are not only calorie-rich, but really bad for my longevity. There are, in short, many benefits to resisting temptation.

As it happens, piling up utilities to keep “myself” on track is a technique I’ve successfully applied before. After first reading Ainslie, I was taught leg bends to strengthen the knee. How to keep at them, though: 100+ a day? I decided to try while brushing my teeth every evening (and some mornings too). I also thought that, being a righty, I’d try brushing with my left hand. In doing so, I added the benefit of left-side exercise to knee exercise to teeth cleaning. I also realized — and thought consciously — that balancing on each leg while working out the other added further value to the, well, exercise.

The net result: the positive utility load I’ve amassed has for more than a decade has successfully countered the cost of the otherwise annoying chores and lefty brush/bends have become an iron-clad habit. The long-term self seems to have won this round. But other struggles never end, something every dieter (and alcoholic) knows all too well.

So, finally, the diet advice, ala Ainslie: draw a bright line that puts your credibility at stake. And stack up the benefits of dieting so they’re front and center in the prefrontal cortex, where the long-term planning self is thought to reside. In short, make your diet more valuable — always — than the snack of the moment.

Easier said than done, of course. The problem with dieting, is that, unlike alcohol, you can’t very well draw so bright a line that you never take another bite. Also unlike dieting, you do have to brush your teeth. So the war of selves goes on and on. No desserts again, ever? They’re right in front of you: on the table, on the menu, at the checkout counter. But FWIW, I haven’t had one in a month.

To date (Valentine’s Day), I’ve lost a few pounds in five weeks. (I didn’t weigh in at the outset.) As to the prospects of keeping them off, and losing several more, I guess we’ll see which of “me” wins. I’ll keep you posted.

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