Saturday, September 26, 2009

Eat and Drink What You Want: The Pre-Commitment Diet

I have an idea for a new diet. I won’t sell any books about it, though, because it’s not really about cutting calories or losing weight. And it’s bad marketing to announce that your diet does not help you lose weight. This diet is most relevant to times when you are eating out with friends or business acquaintances. The pre-commitment diet is about increasing your odds of eating what you want most and drinking what you want, when you are out with others. Of course, I’m not really interested in meals out, beer, or diets, in this blog. It’s about relationships. Here, I’m laying down some principles for upcoming posts.

I like to mention books that I have enjoyed or found interesting. Another of the books I’ve liked a lot in the past year is one by a behavioral economist named Dan Ariely. The book is called Predictably Irrational (the title is a link if you are interested). Ariely’s specialty is examining the ways in which people do not behave quite rationally in all kinds of situations. One of the very interesting things about Ariely’s work is that he devises inventive ways to test various ideas and theories. His book is really a series of descriptions of these interesting experiments, followed by discussion of the principles they highlight and what it may mean to the reader. I will cover one of his studies here that happens to be based on beer. I’ll expand the application for relationships of this study on beer in the next post. After that, I’ll write about one of his studies that is focused on sex.

(By the way, I am not unaware of the probability that blogs that contain the words “diet,” “beer,” and “sex” are likely to draw some attention. In fact, maybe someone reading will have gotten here by Googling those three words at the same time. As you’ll see, beer is not really my focus, but I do want to describe his experiment and it is about beer.)

Ariely’s beer experiment was focused on the orders people made in a pub near MIT (Ariely worked at MIT at the time, not the pub). He and his colleague were allowed to run this experiment in this pub. The idea was pretty simple. He was testing the idea that, when in a group, the beer orders the first people to order make affect the beer orders others, who follow, will make. I don’t mean people across the bar, but people in the same group. So, imagine a setting where persons A, B, C, D, & E are out relaxing, and they are all going to order a beer. To make things simple, let’s assume they are going to order their beers in alphabetical order, so person A is up first.

What did Ariely find? The first person in the group who orders a beer is the one most likely to get the beer she wanted and to like the beer she got. How can this be? We’ll, it turns out that in social settings, like this pub setting with college students, that people like to be unique and special. If person D wanted beer X, but persons A & C already ordered beer X, person D will feel some pressure to be unique and cool, and get a different beer even though he wanted beer X. Being unique and cool is not always groovy. Person A, having no one going before her, gets the beer she really wanted all along because she’s not affected by anyone else’s order.

(By the way, again: It’s studies like this that make me completely mistrust focus groups as ways of gathering information. Unless the setting is just right and the interviewer super skilled, how can what the first people say not affect the validity of what others who follow will say? Are you getting the real opinion of those who speak after several others have spoken? I bet not. This is also pretty good confirmation of the importance of secret ballots.)

Okay, application time: Ariely found that if you had persons A, B, C, D, & E each write down their order on paper, privately, everyone would get the beer they wanted most and would report being more satisfied. This is where the term “pre-commitment” comes in. By pre-commitment, I’m not talking about what builds up to commitment. I’m talking about pre-committing yourself to what you want—or what you think you should do—BEFORE you are in a situation where the circumstances and people might sway you to do, or choose, something other than what you really want or really think you should do.

The pre-commitment diet I have in mind is about deciding ahead of the time that others place their orders what you want and then sticking to it. So, my pre-commitment diet is mostly about getting what you want when you order, not about losing weight. But, if could lead to weight loss if your pre-commitment was about what you were going to order because it had fewer calories.

There is great power in deciding ahead of time what you are about and what you mean to do. Otherwise, the situation or social pressure might lead you to slide into something other than what you wanted to have happen in the first place.

Next time, I’ll focus on that principle when it comes to relationships. And after that, we’ll get to sex. I’m pre-committing to write about that.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Interest in Everyone is Interesting to No One

Here’s a research nugget that rings true. Using speed dating methods, Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel of Northwestern University found that people who convey romantic interest in nearly anyone who is attractive to them end up with fewer people finding them attractive. The lesson? Potential objects of your affection will be less interested when they detect that you are not too choosey.

Put simply, people are able to detect when a person is non-discriminating. And this happens fast, since the phenomena can be measured in speed-dating.

If you are looking for love, hopefully you are looking for someone special, not just any person who will do. Being choosey is not only going to make it more likely you find a partner who fits you in important ways, it will also make you more attractive to this person when you find him or her.

Here’s a very practical tip if you are trying out speed dating in your search for lasting love. Leave your Crosby, Stills and Nash t-shirt that says “love the one you’re with” at home.


Friday, September 11, 2009


I’m returning, briefly, to the subject of the endowment effect. If you want more background before I get to a new point, see the two blog entries below by just searching “endowment” and you’ll get right to them. Then, come back here for the latest thought.

I’m re-reading Tim Harford’s book, The Logic of Life. As I mentioned in an earlier blog (Stuck on You), I really like this book a lot. In the earlier sections of the book, he covers issues directly related to the theme of this blog about relationships and commitment. He covers things like reasons for the greatly increased practice of oral sex among teens. And it, depressingly, makes a lot of sense. He also covers phenomena such as the way the partnering options are affected by how many people exist in your community who you’d be interested in versus how many other people like you are interested in those same people: for example, how it skews things when you live in a city where there are many more single females versus males. Numbers affect things.

Early on in the book, Harford covers some research on the endowment effect that I had missed before. While there is tons of evidence that the endowment effect operates on all of us, it affects people the least who have the most experience buying/selling/trading in that market. He cites a study where a researcher named List did a study at a Pin swap meet. Apparently, there are enough people around who are very interested in all manner of pins (you know, like what you might pick up when you travel to Niagra Falls to commemorate your experience) that there are who swap meets among collectors. In this study Harford cites, the researcher did the classic type of endowment effect study—he gave people something they did not already have and then examined how much it would take to get them to part with it. Here is the bottom line. People who were very experienced pin traders were much more willing to part with the pin they just received in exchange for another. They had become less rapidly attached to the pin they just received than others who had less experience. In essence, the experienced people did not overvalue a new pin just because one was just given to them.

Relationship application time. I’ve seen this illustration used before where someone will liken the way people attach to romantic partners to duct tape. Crude, yes; relative, also yes. Imagine someone taking two pieces of duct tape and sticking them together (sticky sides together) and pulling them apart, over and over and over again. You’d not be surprised that the tape becomes less sticky overtime. The stickiness wears out. Now, think romantic relationships. There are a number of scholars (and others) who believe that having a great many romantic relationships might wear down one’s ability to attach. If I apply this point about the endowment effect above, I get this theory. People who have had a lot of romantic (and sexual) partners may be at greater risk of coming to a point where they do not overvalue the person they are with now. That makes sense and may not be as big of a deal if one is still searching for a solid match of a partner.

Imagine how this might affect someone once they have found “the one,” the person they want to spend the rest of their time with. I’m all for thinking realistically in relationships, but only to a point. There might be something pretty valuable in being able to consistently overvalue your mate: to think they are the best thing since sliced bread and you’d not trade them for anyone. It could be that churning through too many romantic partners earlier in life might make it harder to have that way of seeing one’s mate that may help keep commitment strong.

Maybe staying sticky is a pretty good reason to go slower and more carefully in how one approaches the dating and mating part of life.