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Why We Think and Act Irrationally

I hear this question at least once a week, sometimes as often as once a day: I really want to become a “normal” eater, so why do I keep doing things which are not remotely in my long-term best interest around food? While reading an article in AARP magazine (1/12) on spending practices, I found some enlightening, helpful explanations that answer this question.

In Test Your Money Instincts, Michaela Cavallaro explains a few things about why we manage our money poorly. First, she reminds us that because of the way our brains work, we tend to “choose immediate gratification over larger long-term payoffs, and we rationalize our behavior by telling ourselves we’ll do better tomorrow.” How many times, while eating when you’re not hungry, have you sworn your behavior is just for now and that you’ll mend your ways tomorrow? Probably more times than you can remember.

A key reason we act this way, says Cavallaro, is that “People fear immediate losses more than they desire future gains.” Said another way, we’re more concerned about giving up something now than about what we might accrue at a time that is not now. Cavallaro explains that, “The instinct to flee from losses probably served us well back in the days of saber-toothed tigers when life was more dangerous and unpredictable,” and when “a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.” We’ve become so geared brain-wise to immediate gratification that it can be difficult to defer pleasure. The way to do so is to stop and ask yourself a question about what consequences will follow your action. It also helps to find strategies to quiet the excitable part of your brain and ask your rational self what is in your long-term best interest.

A second reason we have trouble saying no is that it seems people often overestimate their own skill level. Over-confidence is a human tendency, even when there’s no evidence to back it up. We want to believe in ourselves, in our abilities, in our chance of success. You do that when you hop on the scale though you know it’s exactly what you shouldn’t be doing to recover from eating problems because it hasn’t helped you in the past. When you say yes to more commitments than you know you can handle. Better to acknowledge what’s really possible and probable based on your history and experience.

Remind yourself that forgoing immediate gratification for long-term reward is the only way out of food traps. Retrain your brain to always consider consequences. Outsmart primitive urges by putting the future before the present.