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.