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Credible Threat

Primetime Live had an interesting show last week about game theory and how it relates to weight loss. Game theory is a branch of mathematics that studies how people make choices when they take into account what other people are doing, like in a game.

The weight loss segment dealt with the idea of a “credible threat.” They took five people who wanted to lose weight and photographed them in a bikini or speedo. This swimwear was in truly unflattering colors too, colors that do not appear in nature. The people then signed a contract saying that if they did not lose at least 15 pounds in two months, the photo would be shown on the show which is broadcast nationally.

Cue montage of people eating better and exercising. One guy was doing the same Pilates DVD as me! I’d recognize that scissor kick anywhere! Two months later, four of the five people had lost at least fifteen pounds and the last woman had lost thirteen pounds. The producers turned out to be the last people in the TV industry with a heart and didn’t show her photo on TV. Wow, TV executives with souls. Who knew?

As the fancy math professor explained on the show, the reason these people were able to lose weight when they’d previously failed was because there was a very real threat hanging over them that they thought would happen if they didn’t get their asses in gear. Even though it turned out the threat wasn’t real, the fact that they believed it was real was enough. When people are told to lose weight because they could develop heart disease or diabetes, these threats are so far off in the future that they don’t motivate people. They’re not going to die from diabetes next week, so they put it off.

I’d have to say I’ve seen this occur in my own life too. I’d been telling myself for months and months that I needed to start lifting weights. But it wasn’t until I realized I might have to wear a sleeveless dress in a couple months that I actually pulled the dumbbells out from under the bed. Fear of arm flab is a great motivator.

I was a bit disappointed that they didn’t bring up the potentially negative side affect of this experiment. What if someone knew they wouldn’t be able to make goal in time and resorted to an unhealthy weight loss strategy? They could seriously hurt their body simply to avoid a national embarrassment. However, maybe that also explains why some people resort to crazy weight loss treatments. They might have some sort of imminent threat looming over them which motivates them to take extreme measures.

There was another experiment on the show that had nothing to do with weight loss but was pretty cool anyway. They dropped off six teams of two people in different parts of Manhattan and told them they had to find another pair of people. They weren’t given any information on what the other team looked like. Hopeless, right? Evidently not. Three teams met up at the Empire State building and the other three ran into each other at Times Square.

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Amy • March 20, 2006 at 7:04 pm

I always had a sneaking suspicion I should have been paying attention in my math classes. But nooooo, I had to pay attention in English, and where has knowing all the twists and turns of Macbeth gotten me?

Which is to say that game theory sounds neat. It’s true for me, too… I have a couple of events this summer that I would like to look smokin’ hot for (or at least nice in a sleeveless dress, but would prefer smokin’ hot) and I have put it off and put it off… it’s getting down to the wire now, though.

On the other note, though, how did those people find each other in New York? That’s wild.


Chrissie • March 21, 2006 at 1:49 am

There are two places that people will wander to in NYC, Times Square and the Empire State Building so really I’m not all that surprised that the groups found each other.

The game theory segment sounds really interesting though. But you are right, they should have mentioned the risks of threat. A yo-yo diet does more bad than good to your health than being overweight does so if people, faced with a threat, drop the weight only to put it back on may end up doing more harm than good.


Kirsten • March 21, 2006 at 5:19 am

That’s very interesting. I think it would have to be a serious threat though; several times in my life I’ve thought “I have to lose X by such and such a date… oh, it’s hopeless, I just won’t bother.” I think you must have to balance the time-period so that it’s not so short the task seems impossible, and not so far away that the threat recedes.

The most effective “threat” for me has been entering a 5K charity fun run. I had four months to get good enough at running that I wouldn’t totally humiliate myself. There were people at work who were doing it too and knew I had entered, so I couldn’t wriggle out. A year later I’m still running and like it, and have just signed up to do the fun run again. So it does work.


Manny • March 21, 2006 at 11:04 am

I watched the show and thought the same thing – these people are losing too much weight too fast. They’re not changing their lifestyle, which means that they probably gained back all their weight after the show.


Erin • March 21, 2006 at 2:15 pm

I watched the show, too. I was really glad they didn’t show the woman’s photo, even though her current self feels great, there’s no need to shame people over their weight.

Interesting experiment, though. I think that if the guy hadn’t lost the weight, his wife would have murdered him.


hilly • March 21, 2006 at 4:34 pm

That is a really interesting idea but I do agree that they should have mentioned the risks of losing weight that quickly as well.

Oddly enough, it took a medical threat to make me finally start this journey as well. I wonder if I would care about someone posting a bad pic of me all over the world??? Partially, I am guessing I would be like “eh, go ahead”. I’d be the placebo factor for sure ;)

BTW, congrats on getting under 230! You are beating me, LOL.


Bella • March 22, 2006 at 3:23 am

Interesting post…and congratulations on your weight loss – your blog is great! x


Sheila • March 22, 2006 at 9:55 am

You are one witty chica…

I have just finished reading every damn thing you’ve ever written…well at least on this site And your resume, drawings, verbs, nouns,…etc. I’ve never been so inclined, never “swung that way”, but I am at a lack for words in describing this odd fascination I have developed for you… and your inner skeptic. Unfortunately, “crush” is the best thing I can come up with, but it alludes to all kinds of things I do not intend. (In other words…I’m not after your no-nos.)

I find your honesty refreshing and admirable. You have become a source of inspiration for me, not just regarding weight, but also in the approach to life in general. You stay true to yourself and are a talent in the fine and elusive art of communication.

Thanks for the many chuckles, the laugh out louds, and the “hell, yeah!”s.

And while no compliment can be a truly convincing compliment without at least one redundancy: YOU ROCK!


Jenniy • March 22, 2006 at 2:14 pm

Getting engaged and the fear of looking fat in my wedding photos was what finally motivated me to lose the weight I had put on. If it wasn’t for that I think I would have let it go a lot longer.


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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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