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Patience, Fairness, and Self-Control

Posted Oct 22 2013 1:22pm

Recently, I was waiting in a long security line at the airport when a woman came from somewhere in the back and asked those of us near the front if we would allow her to go through. She explained that she was there to meet a child traveling alone and his plane had arrived early. She had to go through security to meet him at the gate, but was concerned that the child was waiting there, alone and afraid. Everyone agreed and not only was no one bothered by the fact that they had to wait a little longer, but in fact, there seemed to be a sort of conviviality among us, as if we were congratulating ourselves for our generosity.

After she left, I thought about what might have happened if someone had done the same thing without asking permission. Let’s say the person was so concerned about the child’s well-being, they didn’t have the presence of mind to worry about the people waiting and just ran up to the front of the line. I think we would have been outraged by this violation of queue etiquette even though the actual impact on our wait would have been exactly the same. It seems that the difference was just our perception of fairness.

I recalled the time a few years earlier when I was waiting in the passport office with about a dozen other people and a very well-dressed man approached the clerk and after exchanging a few words with him, the man’s voice got louder until, red-faced with anger, he shouted, “Do you know who I am?” The clerk apparently didn’t know or didn’t care, because without any change in his demeanor, he calmly but firmly told the man to “sit down and wait like everyone else.” Ouch. That was probably the worst insult he could have thrown at him. The man was still fuming but realized he had no recourse and turned to sit down with the rest of us. I felt we were all suppressing the urge to gloat.

This made me think about the things that we’re willing to do even though we wouldn’t choose to, like waiting in line for goods and services or obeying the rules of the road, yet we willingly accept these limitations on our freedom as the cost of living in a civilized society. Waiting for a red light, for example, allows us to drive safely and efficiently when we’re not stopped at an intersection. Even when the light is green, we’re willing to pull over to the side to allow an emergency vehicle to pass.

We do these things for the social good because we expect they’ll produce a long-term benefit for everyone, including us. But we always keep an eye on fairness. The universal rule of first-come first-served prevents chaos but crucially, it also promotes fairness. Even if someone else gets in line just a few seconds before me and as a result, I have to wait several minutes more for service, I accept it because the rules of the system are fair.

That’s why when we feel we’re doing our part to be patient and accept the cost, we expect that we’ll be able to see the benefit of that small sacrifice. Likewise, we feel outraged when we see that other people are not following the rules, and we resent the fact that they’re getting those same benefits without paying for them. Sometimes, it can even make us feel like breaking the rules ourselves.

I think there is more than just a metaphorical connection between this kind of social behavior and emotional eating.

When you diet, you feel you’re doing what’s necessary to achieve your goal by sticking to the rules and denying yourself your just deserts. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) This requires patience in the same way that people wait in line to get some service. It also requires the assumption that the system is fair. After a few weeks of carefully following a diet and exercise plan, you’re naturally eager to step on the scale and see the fruits of your efforts. If the results are anything less than you had expected, you feel cheated.

Similarly, when you see someone who appears to be at a healthy weight indulging in an ice cream sundae, it’s like seeing someone shamelessly cut to the front of the line. You feel like yelling, “Hey, pal, we’re all suffering here!” This breach of basic fairness makes you wonder, “why do I have to be the chump who sticks to the rules?” It’s like watching that jerk in the passport office, but instead of being told to sit down, he would get exactly the preferential treatment he demanded. I don’t think the rest of us would have put up with that.

The experience that makes you feel that way doesn’t even have to do with eating. It could be triggered by any personal or work situation where you trust the fairness of the system and act responsibly with the necessary sacrifice. But instead of getting the expected reward, you get the sense that the system’s rigged against you and you feel like a sucker. If you’re sufficiently outraged, you just might rebel. For some people, it might take the form of road rage when they’re cut off by another driver. For someone who feels put upon at work, it could be an impertinent comment to their boss. For a dieter in any of those situations, it might be a binge.

When you find yourself in a similar situation, think about the lady at the airport in the alternate scenario. Instead of being angry at her for not asking permission to skip the wait, imagine that she was more concerned about the frightened little boy waiting at the gate than the impatient adults standing on line. You could see it as unfair, or you can give the benefit of the doubt to the person, the system, or your body that’s responding in whatever way it needs in response to your change in diet and exercise. And save your outrage for the jerk at the passport office.


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