January 8th, 2015

Your Brain Is A Jerk: 5 Cognitive Biases That Are Sabotaging Your Fat Loss Goals

One of the curses of being human is that we are hard-wired for delusion.  The good news is that not only is it perfectly normal, but our misbeliefs are the very thing that have, in large part, kept us around for many generations.  In any given moment, millions of thoughts pervade our brains, effecting the day-to-day moment-by-moment decisions we make.  We are under the false impression, however that we are beings of pure logic: Whether it’s a decision to play candy crush rather than hit the gym or flip through another top 20 Buzzfeed article rather than chopping up some veggies to take to work, we falter in many ways that effect our productivity, which in turn prevents us from our goals. 

The 5 Cognitive Biases That Are Sabotaging Your Fat Loss Goals

Man with cogwheel mechanismThe first step towards making good decisions about our health is to know our number 1 enemy:   In this case, the enemy is ruthless, cunning and persistent.  It is the 120 year-old Kung-Fu Shaolin Monk who discovered the fountain of youth.  I’m speaking of course of our own brains.

One of the primary reasons why humans struggle in many aspects of life is that our brains were designed in an era when the best way to save was to consume.  The good news is that our biology and brain wiring is flexible – responsive to experience and therefore “trainable” to work in our favors.  We have biological disadvantages to be sure, but they are not life sentences.

Here are some of the most prominent cognitive errors that prevent us from our fat loss goals and what to do about it;

1. Current Moment Bias (Restraint Bias/Hyperbolic Discounting)

Among other deficits, we Homo sapiens kind of suck at both predicting a future scenario and how we will respond to said scenario.   We are a society of instant gratification – prone to the roller coaster swings of hedonic adaptation.  Not surprisingly most of us would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later – even if the long-term reward is greater.

This is a bias that is of particular concern when it comes to achieving fat loss and greater health.  A 1998 study confirmed the old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, when 74% of participants chose fruit over junk food when asked what they would choose a week from that point when they became hungry . But when the day arrived, 70% chose chocolate. (1)

This is the precise reason we watch “Dumb and Dumber” on TV for the 100thtime while “The English Patient” sits (not so patiently) in our Netflix cue.  It’s why we are forced to throw out produce weekly that was originally destined to be consumed as salad and part of a stir fry.

We are wired to seek immediate payoff.  Most people would rather take $5 now than $7 in a week.  At the heart of this phenomena (termed hyperbolic discounting) is impulsiveness and our ability (or inability) to delay gratification.  This phenomenon was tested in children in the well-known “marshmallow experiment” (2), where children were told they could eat the marshmallow now or wait for a bigger reward that would come later.  Long-term follow-ups showed the children who could hold out for longer generally did better later on in life – getting better grades, having lower BMI and achieving more success in general.

What to do:

The first defense toward combating the current moment bias is to pause and reflect.  Think about the choice you are making, why you are making it and think about the long-term benefits of abstaining from an unhealthy move.  The first step of self-discipline is self-awareness.  When you start to dig below the surface of the conscious mind, the previously subconscious habits that once pulled you off track will repair themselves. Learn about WHY you fail: What types of situations/emotions trigger poor choices?

Even a simple strategy such as the “10 minute rule” can help avert derailing indulgences.  If you want something, wait 10 minutes (or longer if possible).  In this time reflect on whether you are really hungry or if you are responding to a fleeting emotion.

2. Negativity bias

The negativity bias is the tendency to put more emphasis on negative experiences rather than positive ones.  You may have noticed this tendency in yourself (although more likely in others); the glass half-empty-ers, the “negative Nancy’s” – people who perpetually see more threats than opportunities and more bad than good in the world.

Negativity bias can permeate in different ways and can pull you off track when it comes to health-promoting habits.  Whether it’s remembering a past injury from exercise, or how miserable you were on your last diet, our brains bring us back to those recollections – even if you had many positive experiences with trying to improve health.  In the case of fat loss, many will only remember the intervention of choice didn’t “work”.

Media and pop diet book culture serve to fuel the negativity through fear-mongering rhetoric about wheat, artificial sweeteners, sugar, gluten, conventional produce, plastic, toxins, sitting and what-have-you.   These imposed fears override any positive message about exercise or healthful eating we could ever hear about.  We tend to become paralyzed and frustrated by the information – rendering us to a “screw it” kind of mentality.

What to do:

The best mindset in this situation is to recall your successes.  Even if you haven’t had much in the way of body composition successes, it’s important to re-wire your brain towards the positive experiences of training and eating well.  Find your “flow” or that happy place where you are in a zone with movement.  Take note of how good your body feels after a healthy meal.  Also, be sure to gravitate towards activities you enjoy.  Ditto with food (to an extent)…  do not “ban” any foods you really enjoy and don’t force down a food you hate because “it’s good for you.”

3. Optimism Bias

The other side of the self-fulfilling prophesy coin is the optimism bias. While optimism is generally a helpful state of mind, there is a tipping point when it comes to positive thinking.  The optimism bias (also known as unrealistic or comparative optimism) ruses its victim into unrealistic expectations and Pollyanna-esque swagger.  In essence, we are prone to having too much unguarded optimism and not enough realism.  Being overly optimistic can in fact derail your fat loss goals for 2 reasons;

  1. It Keeps us from changing in the first place:  If we believe “everything will be fine” when it comes to our health, it locks us into place.  We pay no attention to what we eat, how little we move and the associated long-term consequences of those habits.
  2. It prevents us from having a relapse plan:  One of the most formidable obstacles to long-term success is failing to have a contingency plan for when you go off the rails.

If you are finding yourself perpetually optimistic without any results, it may be time to temper it with some reality. Successful fat loss often depends on a nice dance of levity and gravity.

What to do:

Optimism is good, but be cautiously optimistic.  Understand that real life gets in the way of our perfect plans.  Set goals, standards and make healthy decisions – but do so in a frame of reality.  Understand the journey will not be smooth, linear or easy.

Consider adjusting your self-talk.  While saying “I can’t do this” is negative (read above), “I CAN do this” is surface level and lacks substance. Some psychologists suggest implementing what’s called “interrogative self-talk”.  Instead of “I can’t” or “I can”, ask the question “can I?”.  By framing as a question, you are setting off a thought process that strategizes HOW you are going to accomplish something, rather than just stating an abstract thought. (3)

4. Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy is a tendency for people to underestimate how long they will need to complete a task. The term was first proposed in a 1979 paper by world-renown cognitive scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.  The planning fallacy might be seen as a natural extension to the optimism bias in that we are being overly generous as to a perceived outcome and how long it should take to achieve it.  When it comes to body composition goals, we grossly underestimate the time involved in achieving more significant losses.

The epicenter of the planning fallacy as it relates to weight loss can be found in the diet fad industry. The emergence of get-lean-quick schemes that pervade western society have systematically eradicated any realistic expectation when it comes to our perceptions of “normal” rates of fat loss.  At the time of this writing, 3 books in the “diet book” section of the local book store promise weight loss at the rate of 1lb a day!  Festooned on the cover of most diet books, weight loss clinics and web click ads are far-fetched weight loss claims.. “25 lbs in a month”, “10 lbs in 2 weeks”.   It’s no wonder our expectations and askew when it comes to our weight loss goals.

Studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between high weight loss expectations and drop-out rates in weight loss programs (4, 5) .  The Dalle study showed the strongest predictors of attrition at 12 months (52% dropped out) were lower age and higher expected 1-year BMI loss, which reflects a tendency towards unrealistic expectations when it comes to weight loss time frames.

What to do:

Calibrate your expectations. Remember if you are carrying 50 lbs more than you’d like, you didn’t gain that weight in a matter of a month or 2. With ebbs and flows of life it’s important to have relapse plans and have some wiggle room with regards to how long it might take to achieve your goal. Take pride and seek accomplishment in the journey.

5. Unit bias

The unit bias suggests that we look at units or portions and perceive them as appropriate or optimal – regardless of reality.   Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating” demonstrated through a series of studies that when we are served larger portions, we eat more.  Whether it’s a bottomless bowl of soup (participants consumed 73% more soup when it was being slowly refilled unbeknownst to the subjects) or big popcorn bags, (6, 7) (subjects consumed 45% more when given a larger bag.  Even when the popcorn was stale, there was a 34% higher consumption).

Liquid calories fare no better when it comes to our perceived consumption. One of our many human flaws is that we don’t have 3 dimensional perception of volume (or even 2 dimensional for that matter).  When it comes to volume we gauge only height.  That’s why when given equal volume, we think there is more liquid in a tall, thin glass than a small wide one.  It’s no wonder bars serve drinks in tall glasses and charge more for it.

Wanskink’s research again uncovered found that a group of participants (many of them bartenders) poured significantly more liquid in short, wide glasses than in tall, skinny ones of the same volume.  Even the ones that poured drinks for a living poured 21% more into the stout glasses! (8)

Misleading perceptions of quantity aren’t confined to just laypeople either, with studies showing registered dieticians having trouble with the accuracy of food portions – underestimating their consumption by around 10% (9)

Unit bias may be one of the most prominent determinants of how much we consume – with our north American super-sized tendencies.

What to do:

First and foremost pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues.  Eat slowly, consume joyfully and mindfully. Use smaller plates and bowls and buy tall, thin drinking glasses.  In restaurants, make it the norm to take some to go (try for half).  If you are snacking on a bagged product, pour some into a small bowl and put the bag out of sight.

Take-home points

Many of our moment-to-moment decisions are driven by our subconscious minds.  More often than not, our brains hardwiring conspires against us in our efforts to lose fat.  Forming sustainable habits is the key to successful fat loss.  Forming these habits is a matter of self-discipline and self-discipline is a matter of self-awareness.  When we become aware of our tricks our minds play on us to steer us towards eating more and moving less, we conquer the most formidable barrier to success.

Keep in mind this is a process.  Our subtle and not-so-subtle whisperings of the subconscious do not often leave gracefully.  It takes mindful re-training, patience and self-love to upgrade the software.  With some grooming and persistence, however there will be no stopping you.

References:

1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9831521
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment
3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20424090
4. http://www.unboundmedicine.com/medline/citation/16339128
5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16339128
6.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15761167
7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16053812
8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1322248/
9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12396160


About Mike Howard

MIke HowardMike has been actively involved in the fitness industry since 1996 – amassing more than 10,000 hours of in-the-trenches experience helping people achieve phenomenal health.

He has worked with a diverse number of individuals of varying ages, goals and abilities. Mike specializes in fat loss, corrective exercise and youth fitness. His approach is comprehensive, individualized and results-oriented. A dedicated and lifelong student, Mike is on the cutting edge of exercise and nutritional science and designs strategies to help people get fast, efficient and long-lasting results.

In addition to personal training and coaching youth, Mike is an accomplished writer, having just released the e-book: “Talking Back to Diet Gurus: An Un-Revolutionary and Un-Sexy Guide to Fat Loss” in addition to his over 350 articles in online and print media. He has also been a guest on the Good Life Show, with Jesse Dylan — an internationally syndicated radio show.

Mike has just opened up limited spots for online coaching and training. Contact him at mike@ coreconceptswellness.com for details.

For more information about Mike, visit www.coreconceptswellness.com and check out his blog http://www.coreconceptswellness.com/blog . And please do feel free to connect on Facebook www.facebook.com/mike.howard2 and/or follow him on Twitter https://twitter.com/CoreConceptsMH


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12 Responses to “Your Brain Is A Jerk: 5 Cognitive Biases That Are Sabotaging Your Fat Loss Goals”

  • Karina Cerda

    Sustainable Habits! 🙂 Lucky for me Tom’s Farm is located at the intersection of “Healthy And Happy” From: *What I can remember! They grow *Sustainable Habits* there *Year Round*!!

  • Great article! #HabitsNotDiets is my mantra. Always enjoy your write ups Mike.

  • Great article
    Sustainable habits are the key, but also knowing thyself is the other part of success

  • Yvonne

    So true! Self awareness is always the cure as ignorance is never true bliss.

  • Ellie

    Perfect timing! I think I’ve allowed myself to be victim of all five points made here without realising. Well written article, thank you.

  • Jon

    Excellent well written and worded article. Thanks!

  • Thank you Mike,

    A very thought provoking article. This wisdom applied can lead to all kinds of changes and opportunities.

    Much appreciated,

    Nico

  • Luzmin

    Great article! Thank
    you.

  • Well researched and written. The Planning Fallacy has always been an issue of mine.

  • Read your book Mike. Great read. Funny. I parrot pieces of it all the time. This article was a great refresher and in depth look at some specific biases. Planning fallacy and optimism bias are two I will think about today. To be honest the concept of bias may have ruined me for life. Between confirmation bias and the habit loop from in Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit,” I wonder where I fit in? I believe my conscious contribution to my own life may be less than 1% at this point. That just makes me think: Man, it has to count when I stop to actually use my brain.

  • Good article! I think I see the “planning fallacy” play out more than the others.

  • Great points here- studying cognitive biases is one of the best things I ever did to help myself make great choices in life. Mainly I got it from a book called Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, but theres also a great Wikipedia page called List of Cognitive Biases. I consult that page every time I have a big decision to make, to see which biases might be screwing me over.

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