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.