Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Want to be rich and thin?

Put your money where your mouth is to shed some pounds.

Indulge me for a moment by participating in the following quiz. Which would you prefer: A red M&M or a 5-cent piece? Six Happy Meals or a 20-buck gift certificate? Free Applebees for a year or a check for a thousand dollars?

If you're inclined to sod the junkfood and make off with the cash, I have excellent news. You are the ideal candidate for a newly popular weight loss method. Let me explain.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people like money. In fact money is one of the few things that almost all people will start working, and keep working, to obtain. (In full psych jargon the reinforcing value of money is incredibly resistant to habituation).

Of course the flipside of this indubitable human truth is that people really, really hate losing money. Neuroimaging studies show that whole networks within our brain are devoted to predicting monetary gains and losses, and lashing us with negative emotions when we lose existing moolah or miss opportunities to acquire more of it.

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So, if you're keen to lose a little weight, flatter me by doing the following thought experiment. What if the next time you ordered a portion of chips and cheese (or whatever your favorite calorific night-time snack happens to be...) you knew you also had to forfeit $1000 from your bank account?

Actually scratch that...what if you not only had to say goodbye to the $1000 but you had to pay it directly to an organization who you object to, or loathe? Like the Tea Party, if you're an Obama-supporting democrat living in America? Or Spurs, if you're an Arsenal fan?

Disco fries don't seem so tasty now, huh?

Of course the method of terrorizing one's current self into behaving in a way that one's future self will thank you for isn't new, by any means. Ulysses (who instructed his crew to physically tie him to a mast in order that he wouldn't act crazy when hearing the sirens' song) may be the earliest success story.

And the latest episode of Radiolab is full of other extreme cases. Like the renowned economist who commanded his children to never have respect for him again if he ever smoked another cigarette. A neurologist who only managed to coerce himself into writing his first book after swearing that he would commit suicide if he didn't (you may have heard of the guy - his name is Oliver Sacks...). And, perhaps most startlingly, a popular Russian treatment for alcohol addiction which involves inserting a torpedo under one's skin that will (allegedly) release a drug that causes a devastating and potentially lethal sickness should you ever raise a glass again.

Why do these tricks succeed? The secret may be that each ‘deal' conjured up a personalized vision of the future that evoked such an immediate, visceral, negative emotional reaction that it simply overwhelmed the simultaneously-occurring urge to indulge in cigarettes or alcohol, or wallow in writer's block.

Thankfully, softer options - that replace the abject terror created by the anticipation of an excruciating death with the somewhat milder fear we have of monetary loss - also seem to work.

And there are an increasing number of tools to help bind you to your goals (or lighten your wallet). For example, if you go to the website StickK.com you can make a ‘commitment contract' that signs you up for a penalty of your choosing if you renege on your promise to yourself. (The Yale researchers who started it recently published results showing that smokers using the technique are (slightly) more likely to quit smoking and stay smoke-free.)

Of course if you're somebody tremendously rich - J.K. Rowling, say - the prospect of losing a few pennies is unlikely to compel you towards any particular feat of abstinence.

In that case it may be all the more crucial to pick a potential fate for your cash that you, personally, find abhorrent. For example, the radio-show I mentioned earlier featured a middle-aged woman who instructed her friend to pay $5000 of her money to the Ku Klux Klan if she ever smoked again. So JKR (an ardent Labor Party supporter and ex-smoker) may have found her struggle to quit ciggies a hell of a lot easier if faltering meant she had to donate some of Harry Potter's galleons to the BNP.

For the regularly financially-endowed, however, there is absolutely no need to go to these kinds of extremes. In fact, so keen am I for you to reach your admirable weight loss goals that I would like to humbly offer my own services as a receptacle for any monies arising from your unmet pledges - a kind of permanent deposit account, if you will.

What's that? Struggling with the concept of promising me large amounts of cash to stop you bingeing on pork scratchings?

It's fine, honestly. Just think of me as your piggy bank.

 

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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