What Obese People Can Learn From Pigeons

How to tie yourself to the mast of self-control

Posted Jan 29, 2013

In a 1967 experiment, psychologists trained pigeons to peck a red key to get food.  (Pigeons were huge back then, research wise!)  Then they tested whether the pigeons could learn to delay gratification.  They set up the pecking booth so that those pigeons who waited a little longer before pecking the red key would get more food when they chose to peck it.

But the pigeons couldn’t wait.

Delaying gratification is an important life skill.  As Walter Mischel showed in a series of groundbreaking studies, children who can delay gratification are more likely to go to college and less likely to end up in jail.  If you want to see what this looks like, check out this video, showing children trying to resist the joys of eating a marshmallow, with the understanding that if they can just hold off a little longer, they will get an extra marshmallow.  Hilarious stuff!

But let’s face it.  Sometimes marshmallows are just too delicious to forego for even a minute.  So what can us instant gratification folks do to resist such temptations?

That 1967 experiment provides us with a simple clue.  The researchers, you see, added a green key to the pigeons’ environment.  Whenever the pigeons pecked the green key, the red key would go away for a while, meaning that the pigeons would no longer be tempted to peck it to get food.  When the red key would reappear, they could peck it knowing they would get a larger reward.

And guess what happened?  Some of the pigeons learned to peck this green key.  Like Ulysses tying himself to the mast so he could resist the call of the Sirens, these pigeons figured out self-control sometimes means losing control over one’s actions, by removing temptation from one’s environment.

We live in a world filled with instant gratification, from video games to snack foods.  Most of us could benefit from placing a few more temptations out of our reach.  How do you do that?

For people struggling to control their weight, it starts with the grocery store.  Have a nice meal or a snack before you go to the grocery store, so you don’t do any hunger shopping.  Prepare a list in advance, that sticks to healthier food items and minimizes unhealthy snack foods.  And tell yourself you must stick with the list.  If you don’t have a bunch of potato chips lying around the house, you won’t be tempted to eat them.

But of course, everyone has to have some delicious snack foods in their house.  So how do you resist indulging in them too often?

Get them out of sight.  Like they say: out of sight, out of mind.  Put them in a pantry, if you’ve got one, and close the doors to the pantry.  Put them in the back of your shelves.

I’d love to hear some of the other tricks that have worked for you.  Let’s share some ideas.  Mastering self-control is a big enough challenge, none of us should feel like we have to do it on our own.

** Previously posted on Forbes **

About the Author

Peter Ubel, M.D., is a physician, behavioral scientist, and professor of Business and Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of Critical Decisions and Free Market Madness.

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