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August 30, 2011

Are you thinking too much or too little about food?

I came across a really good paper of Dan Ariely and Michael Norton about the fascinating research being done in human decision making: 'From thinking too little to thinking too much: a continuum of decision making'.

Basically, there are two approaches to thinking; on the one end of the extreme someone is thinking too much and too carefully. On the other end of the extreme someone is thinking too little; a thinking style based on intuition, heuristics and quick short cuts. Both thinking too little and too much can have negative consequences and lead to mistakes, they argue.

More ice-cream options is definitely better... 
Thinking too much makes decisions harder or leads to postponing them. They refer to the famous study of Iyengar and Lepper who showed that grocery shoppers who were offered free samples of 24 jam flavors were less likely to buy any jam at all than those shoppers who sampled only 6 flavors. This clearly shows that considering too many options made it too hard to choose one. Barry Schwartz calls this 'the paradox of choice. Why more is less' and argues that we are faced with far too many choices on a daily basis. Nevertheless, Iyengar and Lepper's study also showed that people given more options enjoy the process of choosing. That is what I recognize when looking at my daughters in an Italian gelateria. They love to take their time to make a decision, although they typically end up with the same familiar strawberry flavour.

Dieters tend to think a lot about eating, particular negative self-thoughts. Their long history of going on and off on diets and guilty thinking patterns makes them more likely to overeat when confronted with tempting foods. Clearly an example of thinking too much, with harmful consequences. That is because their thinking is too 'concretely' and too much about the struggles of the moment ('shall I take the apple or the chocolate cake?). This uses up a lot of self-control in contrast to thinking about long-term goals (such as being fit and healthy) which can enhance your self-control. This finding came out of a study of Fujita and Han in Psychological Science.

Relying on habits ('I have always done it in this way') can be harmful as well. For example, out of habit, people tend to eat the entire portion that is served to them, even when it is stale popcorn. A little bit more thought could be good in that case. In other words, you may miss out opportunities to eat healthier when you often make quick decisions out of habit.

In an interview, Norton concludes by saying: 'What we know now is that people sometimes think too much, and sometimes they think too little. But we still don't know the right amount to think for any given decision, which is a fascinating decision yet to be solved.'

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