You know what you need to do to drop those extra pounds and be healthier. You need to wake up a little earlier. Walk a little bit more. Eat a few more servings of vegetables, and skip a few glasses of wine. You need to decide to do it, right? You need to set that alarm (and actually get out of bed when it goes off). Buy those green beans. Ask for club soda.
But what’s stopping you? What are you afraid will happen?
In 1979, economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky discovered how important fear—or at least, the fear of possible loss versus the hope of possible gains—was to human behavior. They did a series of experiments that were published under the title “Prospect Theory.” This theory describes the way people choose between alternatives that involve risk. The reality: We’re irrational about loss—but predictably irrational.
Take this thought experiment: Bet on a coin toss. If you win, you win $150. If you lose, you lose $100. The probability of either outcome is 50/50, but the potential gain is 50% higher than the potential loss. Do you take the bet?
Traditional economics predicts that 50% of people would take that bet. Kahneman and Tversky found that the overwhelming majority of people would not take that bet.
And this holds up with just about everything involving risk. As Dan Ariely describes in his book “Predictably Irrational,” “People hate losing much more than they enjoy winning.” About twice as much, in fact. In order for 50% of people to take the coin-toss bet, the researchers had to increase the payout to $200.
What does this mean for your weight-loss journey?
When I was in school for health psychology, I had to learn the right kinds of questions to ask my clients, and my supervisor gave me a clear heuristic to fall back on: Follow the fear.
At first, this seemed extreme. I mean, we’re talking about helping people with some pretty benign stuff. But every time I followed my supervisor’s advice, my client had a little epiphany. Then another. Then another. Most of what was holding people back was not rational. Of course, we all know we need to eat less and move more. But that’s not enough to get us moving. Because it’s too rational. It’s just the hope of gain. We need to weigh that against the very real, often unspoken fear that what we’re doing might not work.
So, to do that, I use my priority grid:
There are no wrong answers or minimum scores. In fact, the scores don’t even matter. I don’t even add them up. The only thing that matters to me in this initial assessment is that you take the time to think about and prioritize your answers. What matters is not the answers, but the thought that goes into them.
Most of what holds us back from getting the things we want is not that we don’t want them enough, but that we’re afraid that trying might not be worth it. So take the time to think about what you’re willing to risk, and ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
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