I recently went to a lecture by a scientist at Northwestern named Malcolm MacIver about how our ability to look ahead – literally to see more than what’s right in front of our noses – affects how our consciousness has evolved. (Here’s a TEDx talk that he gave on this topic.)
There are predatory fish that hunt for prey in murky waters and can only see inches in front of them. They use an electrical sensory system in their tails that indicates when they have just passed some food. This limits their ability to plan ahead and they have to actually back up to catch their prey. Land mammals who can see thousands of yards around them can imagine their plan of attack well ahead of time and can foresee alternate behavioral options to carry it out most effectively. This visual capacity paved the way for the evolution of consciousness by enabling us to use foresight and plan ahead.
Although we humans have the capacity for foresight, for complex reasons that have to do with our other abilities and adaptive needs, such as our capacity for denial, our need for autonomy and our preference for instant gratification, we often tend to see only the short term consequences of our behavior. As we swim around in the present like fish in murky water, we set a limit on our capacity to recognize how our current behavior affects our lives in the future.
There are ways to overcome this blind spot. In his talk, Dr. MacIver gave an example of a program in a public housing project that motivates residents to save energy. When their energy consumption goes up, the thermostat displays a picture of an adult polar bear alone on an ice flow. When they are using energy more efficiently it shows the bear with an increasing number of adult and baby polar bears standing on thicker ice, with seals swimming around them. That got me to think about ways that such an approach could help us to think about our eating behavior and to better appreciate how it will impact our lives in the future.
One thought I had is to change how we use the scale. When you step on a scale you see your current weight. However, it is only a reflection of your past behavior – what you’ve eaten, and how active or sedentary you’ve been. Since you’re trying to change that behavior, such information only emphasizes and draws attention to the problem that you’re trying to fix. It’s a very negative kind of motivation and says nothing about how your behavior change will benefit you. Instead, it keeps you focused tightly on the past and immediate present, which you already know you’re not happy with. How can you use the scale to motivate change in your present behavior and improve your future self?
Let’s say you’re sedentary and you know that your eating habits are not very healthy, and as a result your current weight is 225 pounds. You would like to lose a substantial amount of that extra weight but you don’t know what you can realistically expect to weigh if you change some behaviors, and you’re not sure that it’s worth it to you to have to make those sacrifices.
What if you were able to step on a new type of scale, and by entering a few new healthier behaviors that you have decided to take on, this new scale would show you how much you will weigh in three months, six months, a year or beyond – if you maintain these behavioral changes. So, for example, if you switched from drinking regular soft drinks to zero-calorie beverages, reduced your portion sizes of starchy foods in half, and walked for 30 minutes a day you would be able to step on the scale and instead of seeing “225,” you would see “215 in three months,” “200 in six months,” and “180 in one year.” It could also display your Body Mass Index (BMI) or what your corresponding dress or shirt size would be at those future points.
Wouldn’t that be more motivating than a lecture from your doctor?