Philip Graves

Philip Graves

Consumer Behavior

The Secret to Losing Weight

Could this unusual observation provide a better path to dieting?

Posted Mar 12, 2013


A lot of effort is going into counteracting the pull of this marketing effort: so far with little obvious success.  Food labelling, be it by calorie information, or traffic light indicators of healthiness don’t appear to have made much impact. 

Changing food displays has helped somewhat: putting healthier foods in easier to access locations and ensuring they are presented well has been shown to cause people to make better choices. 

However, even when they work, all these schemes suffer from the same problem: away from the area they’re being deployed, thousands of opportunities exist elsewhere where the unhealthy choice dominates.

Attempts to bring about widespread change through legislation are problematic: the proposed ban on excessively large soda cups in New York is currently going through the courts.  It’s worth recognising that, give the financial power of the companies who stand to lose from consumers making healthier choices, such battles are not easily won.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to losing weight and eating more healthily lies in the nature of our unconscious mind.  As anyone who has experienced the yo-yo of losing weight and gaining illustrates, it’s possible to sustain a conscious effort for a while.  But eventually old eating habits return and, with all the inevitability of a Hollywood movie’s happy ending, the weight comes with it.

It doesn’t help that most diets focus our mind on the food we eat: in essence, the theory is that by thinking a lot about food – albeit the healthier stuff – you can lose weight.  Rationally this makes a lot of sense.  But for the unconscious mind of the overweight, ‘food’ thoughts are typically associated with powerful psychological rewards from eating; it’s how they got big in the first place.

Most people who are overweight don’t have a rational, conscious problem.  They know that it’s unhealthy, they would like to lose it, and they understand that this requires fewer calories in and / or more burned through activity. 

[Incidentally, of the two parts of the weight-loss equation, eating less is overwhelming more important.  Frequently, people who take the exercise route over-estimate how many calories they’ve burned and use this miscalculation as a justification to over-indulge.]


My work brings me into contact with a lot of economists.  Recently, it dawned on me, that I’m yet to meet a chubby one.  I’m sure there are a few out there.  But on the basis of the two hundred or so I’ve met, virtually none have been overweight.  This is in marked contrast to psychologists, for instance, who cover a more typical spectrum of widths, and accountants (who, if anything, sit on the other end of scales!).

The nature of economists’ work is that they spend a lot of time analysing the past and attempting to predict the future through the models they make.  I suspect that this conditions their unconscious minds to have more balanced time preferences.  They, more than anyone, recognise the long-term consequences of a choice made today.

So, might the secret to losing weight lie in the sought of thinking you do?  Could you lose weight by taking out some time each day, not to think about food, but to think about your past and future self?  Perhaps you could read a few market forecasts, or simply look through some family photo albums and imagine the pictures that are yet to fill the empty pages.

Some tangentially related psychological studies suggest that this might not be complete fantasy on my part.  Studies have found that people primed to think about their future selves will delay gratification for a bigger financial return.  And a recent study found that the most successful way to influence your partner over an unresolved issue was to remind him or her how long you’d been together, even if it was irrelevant to the matter you were talking about.

Give it a try.  Just don’t eat a cake whilst you’re doing it!


Daniel M. Bartels, Oleg Urminsky. On Intertemporal Selfishness: How the Perceived Instability of Identity Underlies Impatient Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, August 2011