Magical Third Options

I noticed a NY Times OpEd this morning, How Economics Can Help You Lose Weight. I figured it would be about buying less expensive, but healthier food, but it was actually about restricting choices.

… Xenophon argued that a general can strengthen his army’s position, perhaps counterintuitively, by doing battle next to a dangerous cliff. His soldiers, after all, would only have two choices: fight or die. The army farther from the cliff had a third option: to flee. This extra option, he said, made it less likely to persevere.

I have to interject that doing battle next to a cliff might seem like a good idea to the general, but as one of the troops, I’d rather not have my back to a cliff. Of course sometimes the battle has to be at the cliff.

[Economist Thomas] Schelling said that he eventually applied this theory to his struggle to quit smoking. He wanted to think of it as a battle with two choices — quit or die of cancer — but his nicotine-addled brain kept coming up with a third option: sneak one more cigarette and quit later. Of course, later never came. (“I was quitting for 20 years,” he said.) This theory also applies to weight loss. For years, I’ve known that the only way to lose weight was to permanently change my diet and exercise habits. But I was awfully good at coming up with third options, like buying diet books or eating Atkins bars that made me feel as if I were on the verge of weight loss even if I never jogged or ordered salads.

As I surveyed all my dieting options this time around, I realized that many companies based their entire business models on the impulse to believe in a magical third option. (Their marketing materials usually include the words “miracle,” “easy” or “suggested by Dr. Oz.”) …

… The real money, of course, is in the third, easy, magical-option category. All those diet bars, green-coffee-bean-extract capsules and other supplements earn close to $3 billion a year. Diet soda alone is a $21 billion business. Game theory suggests that if you want to truly change your behavior, commit and close off those options. But as basic marketing makes clear, the real money is still in the fantasy business.

I’d rather not be pushed off a cliff, but I’m not willing to drive off a cliff, either, so I tend to be very skeptical of options that sound too easy. My mind quickly jumped to other third options. With transportation we can keep driving everywhere and pay more, or drive less and find other ways to get around when necessary. The third option seems to be to keep motoring as usual, but substitute hybrids, electric vehicles or some sort of fuel cell cars. I believe that will eventually be a fantasy for all but the very wealthy.

With energy consumption the magical third options include drill-baby-drill, tar sands, tight oil, fracking and ethanol to keep the fossil fuel paradigm going. Other third options include massive solar and wind projects, biofuels, photovoltaic or some flavor of supposedly free nuclear reaction to keep the pervasive electric power grid paradigm going.

As to the point of the OpEd, dieting, Adam Davidson felt that his commitment to meal-replacement shakes eliminated his third options.

This, I realized, was the financial commitment. Unlike Atkins or Dr. Oz-approved products, Robard is not focusing on consumers who make guilt-reducing impulse buys. The company is technically a manufacturer, and its main revenue comes from its powders. Its growth, however, is predicated on persuading doctors to make long-term results-based commitments. Robard provides its medical customers with free services, from individualized training to an annual conference on developments in weight-loss science. In order to charge its large markup, Robard needs to ensure that its research services are tremendously valuable. The company’s financial incentives, in other words, were in line with my own personal goals. So far, I’ve lost 60 pounds.

It is great that Adam Davidson lost weight, but I don’t connect his economic argument to his commitment to the product. Wouldn’t he always have had the third option of sneaking in the occasional snack? It seems clear to me that he felt the company was on his side, and that their attentions helped him stay on the diet. It reminds me more of the brother who lost weight in the Atlantic article, The Perfected Self, which led to me trying out LoseIt. I’m not logging my calories and exercise on LoseIt anymore, but I’m doing the same things that worked while I was.


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