Thanksgiving Tips from the Behavioral Sciences

thanksgivingIn a Washington Post article, an interview with Dan Ariely led to the following tips for dealing with the potential food stuffage that seems to come along with Thanksgiving:

  1. Use chopsticks (or other difficult to handle utensils)
  2. Move the food off the table
  3. Cook the food yourself
  4. Wear a very tight shirt
  5. Serve soup up front
  6. Keep serving that soup (or just serve one thing)

Let’s take a moment to do the forensics on this advice.  The fundamental issue is the heavy bias toward the present that most of us experience.  By this I mean that the present looms large (“mmm… gravy”) relative to the downstream effects (“gee, I am fat”).

One set of strategies is to increase the present costs of eating.  The first four tips focus all use this approach: make it harder to get the food prepared (tip #3), onto your plate (tip #2), into your mouth (tip #1), and into your mouth too many times (tip #4).

Tip #2 also probably benefits from a dose of social persuasion, as you have to make a public display each time you want another serving.  (I sometimes seek camouflage for my Nth serving by asking my wife if I can get her something. Now that I think about it, maybe she’s using me as cover.)

Tip #5 employs the power of the default: you’re being served a lower calorie, more filling option that you have to turn down.  (Note: this only makes sense if you make a soup that’s more healthful than the other options.  My family is from the south, and we know how to work a lot of butter and cream into a soup.)

Tip #6 is a page out of the hedonic treadmill playbook.  People very quickly adapt to most situations, including pleasant ones.  This means that we experience diminishing returns as we consume something without interruption and with little variation.  (Insert your own comment about marriage here.) Hedonic treadmill thus refers to the need to keep pursuing new stuff just to keep your nose above the water, happiness wise.

This effect is both interesting and non-intuitive.  One study, for example, showed that people actually enjoyed TV shows with commercial interruptions more than they did the same shows without commercials.  So presumably, if you just served turkey – piles and piles of delicious, tender turkey – we’d eat less than if we mixed it up with cranberry sauce, yams, mashed potatoes and gravy, warm dinner rolls with butter, and pumpkin pie.  (Hungry yet?)

But Dan’s best advice is to do the math.  Breaking the rules on Thanksgiving is not what makes us fat; it’s the smaller stuff we do day in and out that put on the pounds.  If, for example, you eat an extra 3,500 calories today (a stretch, but within the realm of possibility for those of us who like a challenge), that’s about the same as an additional 10 calories every day for a year.  Take the stairs a few times each day, and you’re back in the black.

So enjoy your Thanksgiving.  There’s always tomorrow to start knuckling down.

(Note: this entry originally appeared at

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