“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver
Gavan J. Fitzsimons studies consumer psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Each year he invites students to dinner and dessert on the condition that they select their dessert a month in advance. To do so, he provides them with a menu that has two options: a 1500 calorie Chocolate Sundae and a 500 calorie Lemon Sorbet. The calorie count is printed on the menu. As you might imagine, nearly every student chooses the healthier sorbet.
On the day of the dinner, Fitzsimons tells his guests that he misplaced their selections and he requests that they choose again from the same menu. What he notices each year is an interesting phenomenon: nearly everyone reverses their original decision and goes for the high-calorie Sundae. The dinner party is Fitzsimons’ way of showing students a disconnect in human decision making, where the choices we make at any given moment often appear to contradict the choices we know to be good for our future health and well-being. The economist Thomas C. Schelling describes this phenomenon in his book “Choice and Consequence”:
“People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert. The two are in continual contest for control.”
One reason for this disconnect, according to Fitzsimons, is that the moment you are making a choice from a menu, the mere presence of a healthy option may be enough to convince you that your goal to eat ‘healthy’ has been fulfilled -even if vicariously- and that you are now free to order whatever you want. He calls this “vicarious goal fulfillment.” It explains not only why the students choose high calorie dessert, but in many of Fitzsimons’s studies, why the presence of healthy options on menus actually produces more unhealthy eating.
“What we find is that almost nobody picks the side-salad, but the presence of the salad on the menu, outside of people’s conscious awareness, fulfills peoples’ ‘eat healthy’ goal. The presence of the healthy option ironically gets people to choose the option that is worst for them.”
Another reason for this disconnect in our decision making is the subconscious role of the environment in which we are making choices. The majority of people going out to eat are not thinking about rationing their portions or watching their calories. Fast food in particular is served in buildings that are as greasy as the food. This environment encourages indulgence – the opposite of calorie-counting! As one food consultant stated:
“What we’re learning from what’s happening in the industry is, consumers don’t see fast food as a place to eat healthy. It’s indulgence that’s important.”
Basically, consumer behavior – the moment to moment decision making behavior – is shaped less by deliberative reasoning and more by non-conscious desire. We do not eat unhealthy food because we are uninformed about the calorie count. We do not eat unhealthy food because we lack healthy alternatives. Rather, we eat unhealthy food because it tastes really good, even when we know it is not good for us. Our desire trumps our reason in moment to moment life. And, somewhat ironically, we in turn rationalize those desires in order to justify our actions to others and to ourselves.
These studies on human choice touch on the language of addiction. Pascal Emmanuel Gobry, writing at The Week, elaborates on the manifestation of addiction through reason:
One of the ways that addiction manifests itself is by unleashing seemingly infinite powers of rationalization. In addition to the physical destruction addition may cause, this is another reason we should all fight addiction: It is ultimately a form of lying, to others and to oneself, and as such it enslaves us….
That’s the thing about addiction. You can say all you want, you can think whatever you want, but at the end of the day, you have to pick a winner: you, or the thing you’re addicted to.
Gobry believes addiction might provide the lens through which we examine some of the decisions we make in our digital world, particularly the obsessive compulsive checking of our devices. He asks that we all turn the notifications off on our phones because:
Unless you are part of a very, very small percentage of the human population, none of the stuff that’s on your phone is actually important. You are simply the victim of a survival-of-the-fittest contest between gadget and app makers, who have become enormously skilled at making us addicted to their products.
He has a point. No one (apart from surgeons, and maybe the President of the United States) needs to be checking their phones as often as they do. I certainly do not need to look at my email every hour. I teach fourth grade! But I am sure I check it more than five times each hour. I certainly do not need to check Facebook when I am in a group of friends. But I do. I am one of the people Gobry talks about, addicted to looking at my phone:
I see you, at bars, at parties, with your family, surreptitiously checking your phone. It’s just a few seconds, you rationalize. It’s not hurting anyone. But maybe it is.
Maybe Gobry and Fitzsimon are touching on the same truth in different ways. Maybe the Internet is really just an endless menu presented before us each moment we are online. There are any number of things we can be watching, reading or playing on the Internet. These things can be healthy or unhealthy. If it is a menu, we need to be aware of how our decisions are affected by vicarious goal fulfillment. For instance, sometimes the good things I want to watch are put farther and farther down the Netflix queue so that I can watch mindless shows or movies. Sometimes, I find myself scrolling over BBC news of ISIS – goal of reading in-depth geo-political news fulfilled – only to stop and spend five minutes looking at pictures of Justin Bieber crashing a high school prom in LA.
Or maybe the Internet is not the menu, but the entire fast food restaurant. In this case, it is no longer a place you go to for nourishment. Here your decisions are guided by the indulgence you associate with the environment. Some call this “infobesity.” I see this played out as well in my own decisions to binge entire series on Netflix or mindlessly peruse Facebook and Instagram feeds with no other purpose than seeing pictures with an appetite that cannot be satiated.
In both of these scenarios, we are no longer allowing ourselves to think reasonably outside of our moment-to-moment existence. Perhaps we need to be like those students choosing a dessert a month in advance, and ask ourselves some questions more difficult than how many calories we hope to consume. If I were to pose some hard questions to myself it might look something like this:
- In a month from now how many minutes would I consider to be reasonable for checking mail or social media?
- In a month from now how many hours of watching movies and shows on Netflix would I consider to be reasonable?
- In a month from now how many minutes would I want to devote to learning a new skill or meeting a new person?
You can ask yourself more questions, but why not stop first and think of what answers you would give to these three using the previous month’s decisions.
Please do not think that I say these things to shame or embarrass you because like Paul, I would be the first to admit that “I am the chief of sinners” with poor decision making online. Actually Paul understood this disconnect in his own actions, writing to the Romans:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.…
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. (excerpt from Romans 7, ESV)
The truth is we all struggle with doing reasonable things for our own betterment and we all rationalize why we cannot commit to doing those things. It might not be difficult for you to eat healthy food. The difficulty for you might be to focus and read those texts that are collecting dust on your bookshelf. The difficulty for you might be to devote the time learning how to play that instrument you always wanted to. Or that difficulty might be trying to establish a stronger relationship with a friend or co-worker.
The point that Fitzsimons and Gobry make clear is that we cannot reason ourselves out of these difficulties because it is our desire that takes the wheel in moments of difficulty. When confronted with dessert in three minutes, desire overrides our reason and tells us that an extra 1000 calories won’t hurt. In an awkward or new social setting desire overrides our reason and tells us that staring a phone is perfectly normal. After a long day of work, desire overrides reason and tells us that binging on junk food and Netflix will have no negative consequences. If we do not begin the work of re-shaping, or re-imagining, our desires so that they hunger for the true, good, and beautiful, those mis-guided desires will shape us, and enslave us. They will define our “one wild, and precious life.”
So tell me, what is it you plan to do?