In Changing Your Thinking Will Change Your Weight Part One we talked about how the words we use when thinking or talking about weight loss can be powerful agents of motivation. Simply substituting “healthy eating” for “diet” removes negative connotations and helps make us feel more in control of our eating behaviors.
This principle can be applied to developing many habits and attitudes we need to lose weight and keep it off.
Changing the way we think about healthy food is a good example.
I was talking to a woman recently about healthy eating and she mentioned that she had been eating a lot of salads lately. But she didn’t use the word “salad”. She said “rabbit food” and wrinkled her face in disgust.
That’s not the way to build motivation and seize control of eating habits. Clearly, she could find nothing rewarding about eating salads. Referring to salads as “rabbit food” implies it is animal food and unfit for human consumption. Not very encouraging.
Most days I eat sardines right out of the can, but I don’t especially care for sardines. They just aren’t very appetizing. Do I concentrate on all the negative aspects of eating sardines? No. I think about how important it is to include fish in my eating routine.
Fish is high in protein, and that means ounce for ounce it satisfies hunger better than just about anything else. I try to limit eating to mealtimes, so it’s normal for my body to expect food at certain times throughout the day.
After all, you are supposed to feel a little hunger when lunch or dinner rolls around. I look forward to feeling hunger before a mealtime because it is a sign I haven’t been snacking and undermining my weight loss goals. I also look forward to the sensation of feeling full after I eat my sardines.
A lot of this is just reminding ourselves of things we already know.
For example, I remind myself that fish is high in DHA and EPA, two Omega 3 fats proven to have profound effects on metabolizing cholesterol and increasing cognitive functions. For someone like me who has issues with triglycerides and makes a living with my brain these facts are highly motivating.
That little change in perspective – looking forward to the positive nutritional results of a food instead of the immediate sensory satisfaction – makes a huge change in my experience of eating. Instead of thinking only about the sensation of what is in my mouth, my focus changes to healthy eating and the benefits it has for my body and lifestyle.
I apply the same thinking to the sensation of hunger. I can gain weight very easily – it’s a sign of success in long-term weight loss – because my body has become so efficient at digesting what I eat. Notice that I changed “I gain weight very easily” into something positive by paring it with a sign of successful weight loss. Easy weight gain is a sign that I’ve successfully lost weight in the past.
That’s a good thing!
Also, instead of thinking of a hunger pang as a distressing sign that my body is in need of nutrition and is sending out a distress call for immediate feeding I take a different perspective. A hunger pang is a signal that my body is turning from metabolizing energy from sugars and proteins in my bloodstream to metabolizing fat reserves.
That’s a good thing!
It means I’m losing weight, which is exactly what I want to do. Making that simple change in perspective puts me in control of the experiences associated with eating. I feel good about that hunger pang.
I welcome it!
It means that I’m on my way to accomplishing my goal of maintaining my weight and living a healthy lifestyle.
None of this is “looking on the bright side” or searching for a ray of positivity in the gloom. It’s all about applying facts to the experience of weight loss and fighting our human compulsion to make things harder than they really are.
Try it. It will take practice to make it a habit, but that’s true of any skill worth learning.
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One important approach to lose weight is to think about what you say to yourself about food and eating. Most people think of losing weight as an uncomfortable and arduous task. If that is your perspective on the future you probably are not opening your arms to enjoy a new experiences, one that is healthy and good for you.
Focusing on denying yourself the food you really want to eat and anticipating hunger and discomfort is not the way to motivate yourself to change your eating habits. The trick is to starting thinking of healthy foods and eating in new ways.
For example, notice that I used the phrase “healthy foods and eating” instead of “dieting”.
I avoid the word “diet” and “dieting” for two reasons.
First, it’s not really accurate. We are always on a diet. Whatever we are eating is our diet. If you eat mostly vegetables you are on a vegetable diet. If you eat noting but ice cream you are on an ice cream diet. Your diet can be healthy, unhealthy or something in between, but you are always on some sort of diet.
Once you start thinking about a diet this way it opens the door to making changes to your diet. You can change what you eat, when you eat, and how often you eat. That is far more complex than thinking,
“I’m on a diet.”
That phrase brings up the second reason I don’t like using the word diet. For most people the word “diet” has negative connotations. Diets are restrictive. They require us to eat foods we don’t like and we have to stay hungry all the time.
Those are not the kinds of images about healthy eating that tend to motivate people.
Instead of inviting that kind of imagery, forget the word “diet” or “dieting” and avoid the words or thought “I am on a diet” or “I have to go on a diet”. Remind yourself that you are always on a diet – your diet is whatever you are eating. You can have a healthy diet or an unhealthy diet.
Instead of “diet” I prefer to think of what I eat as either “healthy eating” or “unhealthy eating”. Simply by changing the word I use to describe what I’m eating makes two big changes.
First, it puts me in control. I can eat whatever I want any time I want it. I am not at the mercy of a “diet” probably created by someone else that I have to follow without fail. It’s no longer a matter of obedience, conformity and compliance.
I make decisions about what I eat throughout the day, guided by my desire to keep my weight down and keep my body healthy.
Second, an episode of unhealthy eating is just that – one event that is something less than optimal. It’s not “failing at my diet” or “going off my diet”. Instead, it is just a small change to what I normally eat.
So, forget dieting and think about eating healthy. It’s such a small change, but has enormous power in changing your eating behaviors.
It is normal for our economy to get a bump when new and promising things happen. Economic measures go up at the first of the year, when a new president is inaugurated and following tax reform legislation. People are generally more optimistic at those times and spend more freely boosting the economy.
Those events contribute to the marginally better economy we are experiencing, but there are some troubling blips on the radar. The smooth sailing may be over and we might be facing turbulent times.
First, the effects of the Trump tax cuts are diminishing. IRS policy changes for the 2019 and 2020 tax years will result in increasing taxes. Standard deductions will be going up in response to anticipated inflation, meaning that a larger share of income will be subject to taxation. This will have the effect of taking money out of the economy in 2019 without returning any real value. That might slow inflation, but at the expense of a decrease in the standard of living for most people.
Here is a chart comparing the rise of tax receipts with the rise in average hourly wages over the last couple of years:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Federal government current tax receipts: Personal current taxes [A074RC1Q027SBEA], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A074RC1Q027SBEA, November 17, 2018.
The important thing to compare are the angles of the two lines. Generally the blue line, tax receipts, is stepper than the orange line representing hourly income. That means that taxes are increasing at a greater rate than income, lowering real income. Even though we might make more money the increases are eaten up by taxes that are increasing even faster than wages. The sharp dogleg in tax receipts is the temporary bump in paychecks we saw right after the Trump tax bill was passed.
Another troubling development is the increase in household debt and delinquencies on payments. Household debt reached a new record of $13.5 trillion dollars last quarter. Household debt is the aggregate of all personal debt arising from personal loans, credit cards, auto loans, home mortgages and student loans. Debt can be a good thing when it is being reliably paid down, but payments have become less reliable.
Student loans, credit card and auto debt delinquencies have been rising, especially student loan delinquencies which have increased from 8.6% to 9.1% in the last quarter. This implies that increases in wages are not keeping up with the ability to service debt.
The troubling thing about student load debt is that it does not result in a net wealth increase for people holding it. Education is not a good investment when jobs are scarce, yet that is when people tend to go to school. The chart below starkly illustrates the lack of a relationship between education and income. Education is a good investment only during good economic times. Going into education debt during a downturn only ensures more poverty.
Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Real Median Household Income in the United States [MEHOINUSA672N], retrieved from FRED, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis; https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/MEHOINUSA672N, November 17, 2018.
Other signs of a weakening economy are jittery tech stocks. The FAAMG stocks — Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet – have an outsize effect on the stock market. When the techs experience a downturn, so does the rest of the stock market.
Although the FAAMG stocks are generally healthy, trends are gathering that might have an impact on their volatility. Facebook is losing members and its stock value has been declining since the summer when foreign manipulation of public opinion came to light during the 2016 election. IPhone sales are down, and holiday buying expectations are guarded.
None of this means a recession is imminent. What is concerning, though is that our new economy is not nearly as resilient as the one that disappeared in 2008, and even a modest downturn could have catastrophic effects on so many members of our economy living and dying with poverty.
We’ve been seeing headlines screaming about low unemployment rates and a red hot job market.
I’m not seeing any of this.
The people I know still struggle along, looking for a decent job and taking any short term low wage job they can get. I’ve got a gig at a community college and don’t see any of my adjunct colleagues quitting the part time adjunct grind for jobs demanding graduate degrees and specialized knowledge — even though that is what they all have because it is required by the college.
An increase in the availability of good jobs would be reflected throughout the economy, but does not seem to be happening.
Historically, inflation increases when economies come out of recession and hiring picks up. That is because people are making more money and catching up on the buying they have deferred wile unemployed, creating demand.
But that’s not happening.
Inflation is edging up just a little, but that might because the Federal Reserve has been increasing interest rates just in case inflation increases.
If people were getting hired and making more money we would also expect a rise in home sales, but that isn’t happening. In fact just the opposite is happening. Since 2017 home sales have been sliding down and seem to be accelerating over the last six months or so.
Quite possibly the rise in employment is mostly attributable to an increase in low paying part time jobs. This would explain the lack of impact in the rest of the economy that we would expect if well paying full time jobs were being filled. It also explains the increase in multiple job holders.
So, no, claims of a red hot job market are not supported by BLS statistics, the Federal Reserve or the National Association of Realtors.
Most likely this is just hype coming from people and organizations with an agenda who spread economic fantasies in hopes they will come true.
When we think about the value of a college education, it is usually in the context of making a living. We expect that a college education will result in higher earnings over the course of our lifetime. This idea has been drummed into us for the last thirty years. For decades, the education industry has been repeating the mantra that ever more education means ever more income.
There might be some truth to that, but it a relatively new view of the value of education. My parents and grandparents didn’t see things that way. Sure, higher education contributed to a higher standard of living, but that was not really the point of going to school. My parents put me on the college track when I was elementary school, not for the promise of a high income, but because an education built character and made individuals better citizens.
In their view, smart people have a civic duty to get an education because of the benefits it returns to society.
This wasn’t an idea created by the generation before mine. The Founders of the United States had a reverence for education. Concepts like equality, liberty and democracy are abstractions – they are intangibles, sometimes called metaphysical because we cannot see or even visualize them in our imaginations. Without an education, it is very difficult to understand sophisticated arguments about political theory and the rights of man.
Graduating from college meant I was educated and ready to contribute to moving my country past the convulsions of the 60’s and 70’s that was tearing it apart. I was very proud of myself for earning a bachelor’s degree.
That is, until I read the newspaper.
About a week after the formalities of the graduation ceremony, I was sitting on my parents’ couch reading an editorial. I don’t remember what the editorial was about, but I vividly remember a reference to The Scarlet Letter and having no idea what the editorial was trying to say because I had never read the book.
I was stunned.
Here I am, I thought, a week out of college with a newly minted diploma attesting to my new status as an educated American, and I don’t know what a newspaper editorial means because I have not read a well-known classic American novel.
I resolved to plug that hole in my education.
I began going to the city library, working my way through canyons of bookcases packed with classic works of fiction and highbrow literature that I had avoided in high school and college. I’d pick out a book I had heard about but never read, head to the overstuffed chairs at the ends of the bookcases, and start reading.
Some books I just could not manage.
Anything by Dickens or the Bronte sisters are just too slow and boring. And who would want to go to the trouble of writing a book and then title it The Scarlet Pimpernel? I never got far enough in that book to find out what a pimpernel is or why a scarlet one is noteworthy.
The unfamiliar names of characters in War and Peace confused me no end, but I made index cards with mini-biographies to keep everyone straight. Even then, I found the book just plodding along. Just the same, it brought the Russian history courses I took in college to life.
This got me excited about Russian history and I read biographies of Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great. I even got to Nicholas and Alexandria, the story of the last Tsar and the revolution that brought communism and half a century of untold suffering to the Russian people.
That got me started on Russian dissent Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works.
The relevance of old stories to modern concerns was something else I discovered.
St. Elmo is one of the first romance novels. It was written in the 1880’s, I think, and is so full of archaic words that I kept a dictionary nearby as I read the book.
The plot was follows the formula of modern romance novels. Some things never change – and our appetite for romance novels is one of them.
The main character was a young woman nursing a broken heart who meets a mysterious wealthy stranger, who also lost at love. St. Elmo was the grief stricken mystery man and the narrator was the governess – the nanny — of his children. I found out that back in those days a “bluestocking” was an older, conservative woman who thinks young people have no discretion, decorum or respect for propriety.
Sound familiar? Human nature is very slow to change and books like St Elmo reminds me how similar we are to generations long past.
The Iliad and The Odyssey, both written by Homer almost a thousand years ago, might be the first novels ever written. In the last few years archeologists have found that people and events described in these books really existed. Homer describes the Trojan War in some detail, as well as the duplicity that spawned the famous wooden horse. Helen of Troy makes a series of appearances as well, and Homer explains her role in the conflict.
Something in The Odyssey frequently comes to mind when I see people openly wearing guns in public.
In the book, the main character, Odysseus, finally returns to his hometown after 20 years of adventures. He finds that although his wife had remained pure and true to him, men vying for her bed and her fortune surrounded her. He reveals himself to his son who wants to grab swords and axes to intimidate and scare off the interlopers. The old man immediately rejects the idea saying,
“Bare steel in sight draws men to fight.”
Instead of inviting a bloody confrontation, they hatch a plan to discreetly keep their weapons under their cloaks and use their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve their goals. That part of the book always comes to mind when I see people openly toting pistols in public. If Homer was to reincarnate in Walmart his modern advice might be, “Carry your gun discreetly and like Odysseus and his son, use your wits to avoid using it”.
Something truly amazing about The Odyssey is that the plot of 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? is based on it, although it is set in Depression era Mississippi and the main characters are prison escapees. Imagine, a poem written almost a thousand years ago made into a modern motion picture!
Finally, there is Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, the book is now the focus of racial conspiracy theories. Historical revisionists claim the books’ purpose is to glorify slavery and the antebellum South, but that simply is not true. Most people advancing that assertion have likely not read the book, although they might have seen the movie.
The famous move limits itself to the love story between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but their romance is just a superficial subplot in the book. The real story is more complex and very relevant to what we are now experiencing in the wake of the collapse of the industrial economy in 2008. It’s as if the southern survivors of the Civil War left a time capsule detailing their struggles creating a new economy from the ashes of an old one.
The book actually explores the question of why, in the aftermath of the destruction of an economy, some people achieve success and others do not. In the beginning of the book author Margret Mitchell tells of listening to adults who were alive during the Civil War incessantly discussing this question.
Some people who were wealthy before the war were able to rebuild their fortunes afterwards, but many of their peers did not. At the same time, there were people who were very poor before the war, yet afterwards did quite well for themselves.
What is it that determines an individual’s financial fate when they live in the ruins of a formally vibrant economy? It not just the ability to work hard – Americans are notable throughout the world for their work ethic. Plenty of people work very hard, but never achieve much material success. We call them the “working poor”.
Why is it some do so well and others do so poorly? This is an especially relevant question today as we move past the collapse of the industrial economy of the 20th century and begin building a new economy.
Individually we are facing challenges very similar to what Mitchell heard her elders discussing when she was a child. Like them, now there are people who struggled in the old economy who are doing very well in the emerging one. On the other hand, some people who were doing quite well in the late 20th century are now living like Tom Joad, a character in Grapes of Wrath, another book, (and movie), examining the plight of people facing the aftermath of a collapse of a national economy.
Education is not just about getting a college degree and making more money than you would otherwise. It is about amassing a wealth of knowledge that makes the world more understandable. A broad wealth of knowledge helps us see important nuances and reveals connections and insights others have experienced.
I found out that in order to learn new things it is essential to have a foundation that new knowledge can build upon. Learning a new language or musical instrument is a good example of this. In the beginning, learning is very slow and difficult because there is no context for the new knowledge. As learning takes hold it becomes easier to add new knowledge to what we now understand. Every morsel of knowledge is a foundation for more knowledge. Every bit of new knowledge has a relationship with previously learned knowledge.
Education is the antidote to “fake news”, conspiracy theories mascaraing as insight, and emotional catchphrases that subtly undermine principles of justice and equality.
Education leverages the value of the struggles and victories of people who came before us. Their knowledge and experiences strengthen our cognitive insights and understanding as we grapple with our challenges and struggles.
A college degree is just the beginning of education. It is a foundation for the real education to come – a lifetime of intellectual excitement and exploration.
In previous articles about weight loss, I’ve talked about why will power doesn’t work, that simply being aware of one’s excess weight correlates with gaining even more weight, and my own struggles and victories with weight control.
In this article, I’ll give some examples of why we cannot trust ourselves to manage weight loss and why we need to approach the problem like a nutritional scientist.
In his excellent book, Subliminal, Leonard Mlodinow tells us about a fascinating series of experiments in which researchers manipulated the brain arousal of volunteers, then subjected them to a range of situations in which they made decisions about their relationship with other people, the taste and desirability of different foods or explanations for their opinions or observations.
In one experiment, for example, researchers would show subjects two pictures of randomly chosen people of the opposite sex and ask which was more attractive. Later they would show the subjects the picture they did not choose and ask why they found the person attractive. More than 75% of the time the subjects did not realize the picture experimenter presented them was the one they did not find attractive, but that was not the point of the experiment.
The point was how the subjects would respond when the experimenter asked what they found attractive about the person in the picture. The 75% who did not realize the picture presented was of the person they found to be least attractive identified all sorts of reasons for why they found the person in the picture attractive, even though they had identified it as unattractive previously.
That might be of passing interest, but then researchers repeated the experiment in the context of food.
When food is involved things became very interesting.
In supermarkets, researchers set up taste tests of jams by different manufacturers. Again, they presented two samples and asked for a preference based on taste. They kept track of which brands of jam volunteers preferred and did not prefer, and later gave them a sample that was actually the brand the volunteer did not prefer.
Again, when asked about what they liked about the sample they had earlier stated they did not like, the subjects identified all sorts of characteristics such as taste, consistency, color and sweetness or tartness that determined their preference. In reality, they had already tasted the brand and labeled it as less desirable.
Your Brain and the “Pepsi Paradox”
The Pepsi Paradox has bedeviled soft drink marketers for decades.
The Pepsi Paradox is the fact that in blind taste tests people overwhelmingly rate Pepsi superior to Coke, but a large portion of them prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking.
How can this be?
The portion of our brain that rests directly above our eye sockets is the Executive Center. It is the “mission control” center of the brain where complex networking decisions that coordinates the many different organs of our brain.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) resides in the Executive Center and helps the brain determine whether objects are associated with safe, warm and familiar experiences.
In blind taste tests using some volunteers with damaged VMPC and others with intact VMPCs, both groups preferred Pepsi in the blind condition when they did not know which brand they were drinking. This was no surprise and was no different from what happens when all volunteers have intact VMPCs.
However, the preferences of volunteers with damaged VMPCs were consistent in their preference for Pepsi. The Pepsi paradox disappeared. Regardless of whether they knew what they were drinking, they preferred Pepsi. The lack of a fully functioning VMPC seems to keep previous experiences from influencing judgements about current experiences.
The VMPC is the brain organ that undermines our objectivity, at least when it comes to food preferences.
These have been just a few examples of how our brain can fool us about the most basic of our food preferences and decisions making. There are far more.
The IKEA Effect and Diet Planning
I’ve been talking about how unreliable our thinking and decision-making about food choices can be because understanding our biases and prejudices has a huge effect on strategies for weight loss.
Clearly, successful weight loss requires more than just good intentions and will power. It is important that well thought out planning, an effective strategy and choosing cognitive and behavioral supports long before altering eating or exercise habits.
Why is creating a comprehensive plan so important? Something called the IKEA Effect.
Dan Ariely, a well know social psychologist at Duke University, coined the term to label a cognitive-behavioral trait that all humans seem to have. We value things more if we contribute to their creation, and the more we contribute the more we value the product.
In Ariely’s excellent and very readable book, “The Upside of Irrationality” he tells the story of Pillsbury marketers in the 1940’s trying to popularize various powered mixes for desserts, cakes and pies. Homemakers of the era took great pride in the ability to cook delicious foods from scratch, so marketers of instant food, especially cakes, were facing a serious challenge in convincing women to buy the new instant foods.
A marketing psychologist named Earnest Dicter realized that women who took great pride in creating desserts from scratch might find that simply adding water to a ready-made cake mix disrespectful of their talents. It is another version of technology replacing artisanship and diminishing hard won skills of expertise.
Dicter suggested simply printing an additional instruction on the side of the cake mix box to add one raw egg. The very simple change of adding the egg became a symbol of involvement and connection with the finished cake. That simple gesture resulted in a sudden and dramatic increase in cake mix sales.
Ariely launched a number of experiments exploring why we value things more highly when we have a hand in creating them. What is so powerful, he wondered, about creating something?
In one series of experiments, Ariely had volunteers follow directions to make simple and complex origami swans. He then had the volunteers rate both their own creations and the creations of others. Naturally, he found volunteers rated their own creations higher than those made by others.
However, he followed this with auctions of the origami. Again, he found that the people who created a particular origami swan valued it higher than those made by others did. Furthermore, the more effort put into the origami increased the value people had for their creations. Interestingly, only completed origami was valued; incomplete creations had no value at all.
This is why kits of all kinds are so popular. IKEA has made retail history by not selling completed products, but prefabricated kits the customer assembles. We put more value on things when we put effort into completing them than those that are already complete. Our involvement in creating something gives it value.
Amazingly, animals share this trait.
In the early 1960’s psychologist, Glen Jensen noticed that lab rats would continue to press a bar to get pellets of food even though an effort free bowl of food was available. In a controlled experiment all but one of 200 rats would visit the food bowl, but leave it if a bar dispensing food pellets were available.
Subsequent studies support this conclusion.
Psychologists Brooks Carder and Kenneth Berkowitz performed several animal experiments in the 1970’s finding that rats preferred pressing a bar for food rather than eating “free” food as long as the effort was not excessive (Carder and Berkowitz 1970, 1972):
“Rats were trained to eat free food from a dish, then trained to press a lever for similar food. The free food was then presented while subjects were pressing on several reinforcement schedules. Subjects continued to press for reinforcement when one or two presses were required for reinforcement, and ate little free food. When ten presses were required for reinforcement, rats preferred free food and pressed little or not at all. It was concluded that, when work demands are not too high, rats prefer earned food to free food” (Carder and Berkowitz 1970 Abstract).
Although the animals have to work harder when eating a carcass they become healthier and seem less anxious than when eating their usual fair of ground domestic meat. Even though it takes far more effort to crush bones and chew through ribs and hooves, big cats seem to prefer it.
The idea of putting forth effort for a rewarding experience is not limited to animals.
In his fascinating book Satisfaction, Neurologist Gregory Berns tells of an experiment by one of his graduate students, Cary Zink (Zink, Pagnoni, Martin-Skurski, Chappelow and Berns 2004):
It occurred to Zink that if we value money only because it has value, the pleasure center of our brain – the striatum, a structure in the mid brain at the top of the spinal column – would have a consistent reaction no matter whether an individual perceives they are earning money or simply accepting it.
However, if earning money has value, aside from the value of money, our striatum pleasure center should react more strongly when we perceive we have put effort into earning money.
And that is exactly what happens.
Subjects required to press a button in order to receive a reward generated more activity on the striatum than those who didn’t. Pressing a button in an fMRI machine may seem trivial, but it represents effort. Even that minimal effort generated a large increase in striatum activity indicating a pleasurable experience. The reward is in the effort we put into earning, not strictly in the tangible payoff itself.
What this tells us
First Mlodinow tells us how difficult it is for us to think about our eating habits. We say we like the taste of something, but if we are misled, even just a little, we will make up all sorts of reasons why we like the food that we never said we liked.
The Pepsi Paradox illustrates that we have brain structures that emphasize past experiences and opinions to the extent that we have trouble realizing we like one thing more than another.
Finally, Ariely, Berns and Zink make convincing arguments that we value things we create more than things others create, and that we are hard wired to feel pleasure when we earn something.
Putting this all together, we find evidence to support the idea that we are not very good monitors of our eating behaviors. We are easily misled and confused. Even in the best of circumstances, we are very bad at objectively examining our thoughts and behaviors related to eating and weight loss.
What does this tell us about how we need to go about losing weight?
For one thing, it is clear that we must put far more effort into weight loss than simply following a diet we read in a book or magazine. It’s not that diets in books and magazines are flawed, although many of them are. The biggest problem lies within us – we just don’t do a very good job of thinking clearly about food, eating and nutrition. Finding a good weight loss program is easy. The hard part is removing the unconscious thoughts and behaviors that undermine us.
We have to remove ourselves from our weight loss efforts.
But how the heck do we do that? How can we remove ourselves and still have influence over what we do?
Scientists face the same problem. They are searching for truth, but if they allow their personal biases and prejudices to influence their research, grant money will dry up and professional reputations become tarnished.
So how do scientists do it?
They measure everything of importance, record those measurements and examine them for changes. This is “data collection and monitoring” and it is at the heart of determining why things occur.
Let’s revisit Berns, Ariely and Zink for a moment. Their message seems to be that we have more value for things we have a hind in creating. The more effort we put into creating something the more value we place on it.
That is the IKEA Effect.
When we follow a diet plan like the Mediterranean Diet, we are simply along for the ride. Someone else came up with that diet, and we are just following his or her lead. “Eat more vegetables, and don’t forget the olive oil” is about as invested as we get.
However, when we create our own custom diet, designed for our unique biology, life style and metabolism we will be far more likely to lose weight permanently. This is because we care about the success of our own creation more than the creation of a diet book author.
That is because it takes effort. Not the effort of following someone else’s diet, but the effort of going to the trouble of discovering what works for our individual situation. Learning about how our individual body manages food, and fat, then writing our own diet book with only one reader – us – is the most promising path to permanent weight loss.
It sounds like a huge project, and it is. But like any other huge project if we just take it a step at a time we will eventually get to our destination.
The first step is to educate ourselves about nutrition, eating and weight loss. The fact that you have read this far show that you are already taking the first step. Here are a few other sources of knowledge to digest:
Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.
Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss, though people placing bets have control over just about everything. They define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.
Not only do they have those technical issues under their control, they are also highly confident that they will lose weight, otherwise they would never make the bet.
Yet in spite of all that control and confidence, the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future.
Almost everyone fails.
How can this be? How can millions of people worldwide fail to lose weight? You would think that at least a few of them would accidentally do all the right things and lose a few pounds.
In a recent meta-study, 78 academic studies of weight loss attempts were reviewed and their results were recalculated and aggregated. (Haynes, Kersbergen, Sutin, Daly, and Robinson 2018). In other words, the authors statistically re-examined the results of 78 academic studies on weight loss and combined them into one huge academic paper.
Some of the insights they gained were quite surprising.
“We examined peer-reviewed literature published between 1991 and 2017 and found strong evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with a higher likelihood of trying to lose weight and moderate evidence to suggest perceived overweight was associated with greater use of both healthy and unhealthy weight control strategies. However, those weight loss attempts and strategies did not appear to be translated into healthy weight-related behaviours” (p.357).
“…while individuals who perceived their weight status as overweight were more likely to report trying to consume a healthy diet and increasing physical activity to lose weight, there was no evidence to suggest that these individuals were actually more likely to enact these behaviours than those who did not identify as overweight. …there was evidence of no relationship between perceived overweight and healthy eating habits” (p.359).
“…there was strong longitudinal evidence to suggest that perceived overweight predicts weight gain over time, and this was the case across the majority of participant subgroups” (p.359).
In other words, this study found that people who know they are overweight might try reasonable methods to lose weight — exercise and healthy eating — but were not quite able to accomplish serious weight loss. In fact, the strongest predictor of weight gain is the knowledge you are overweight!
That does not give us very much insight into what specifically causes weight loss efforts to fail, but there is one tantalizing hint that might give us something to address:
“Attempts to lose weight by individuals who perceive themselves as overweight may not necessarily translate into the adoption or appropriate implementation of effective weight control strategies. Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating” (p.359).
“Perceived overweight was associated with unhealthy weight control strategies and disordered eating”. It’s not the people do not try to lose weight, the problem seems to be they try in the wrong ways. This study seems to find that unhealthy weight control strategies and “disordered eating” are what keep us from losing weight.
“Unhealthy weight control strategies” and “disordered eating” are eating behaviors that are not quite serious enough to be mental health issues like anorexia nervosa or chronic bulimia. Instead, these are things like obsessive calorie counting, binging, late night eating, abusing laxatives, excessive fasting or chronic restrained eating.
These behaviors are not in themselves things that make us gain weight, but they lead to a breakdown of a healthy eating regimen. These are the ways we undermine ourselves, but taken individually and as one time or occasional behaviors they are harmless. However, when we unconsciously integrate them into our lifestyle they undermine our commitment to healthy weight loss.
Cognition, Behaviors and Weight Loss
The way we think about food and eating has a powerful effect on how we use food to either keep us healthy or make us sick. Our thoughts can undermine our goals or improve the chances of achieving them. Our thoughts have this incredible power because they determine our behaviors — the things we physically do.
Psychologists have a name for this interaction of thoughts and behaviors — Cognitive-Behavioral. Cognitive or cognition refers to internal mental mechanisms like thoughts, memories and intelligence. The inner voice you her when reading or talking to yourself is cognition, so is the process of recalling a memory or making a new one.
Behavior is anything you physically do that you or others can observe and count or measure. If someone can count the times they see, hear or feel you doing something, it’s a behavior. People often confuse emotions with behavior, but emotions are an internal sensation. We can’t see emotions like anger or happiness, only the external physical manifestations, like a frown, furrowed brow, or a smile or laughter. We really do not know what other people are thinking.
We don’t even know what we are thinking much of the time. That is one of the biggest challenges in healthy eating and weight loss. Things we are not even aware of can influence our thoughts, and in turn, our thoughts influence our eating and health behaviors.
Even the most unremarkable things can influence our view of idea of how the world works.
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Noble prize in Economics for his work in Behavioral Economics — the melding of economics and psychology to investigate how people make decisions about numbers and money. Thinking, fast and slow is his landmark book that covers all his very interesting experiments and breakthroughs. This is a must have book for everyone interested in behavioral economics.
In a famous experiment at the University of Oregon, Kahneman and his academic partner Amos Tversky, built a Wheel of Fortune, similar to the one on the televise game show. Unlike the television wheel, the Kahneman/Tversky wheel would stop only on 10 or 65. After spinning the wheel in front of a group of students Kahneman would ask two questions that students were unlikely to know and would there for be forced to guess.
“Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote?” and,
“What is our best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?”
Amazingly, students exposed to 10 averages 25% for the two questions, and those exposed to the 65 guessed that 45% of countries in the UN were African. Simply being exposed to larger or small numbers influenced students estimates of the national membership of the UN.
Kahneman and Tversky call this the “anchoring effect”. When we are exposed to a high number, we tend to make higher estimates of anything asked of us afterwards. Students exposed to a higher number in the Wheel of Fortune experiment tended to guess that African nations were a larger part of the UN than students exposed to the lower number.
Even though the number was nothing more than a symbol on a wheel and did not represent quantity or anything else.
In a similar experiment, real estate agents were asked to access the value of a house that was on the market. They visited the house and were given a booklet with pertinent facts. However half the agents had a booklet listing an asking price far above the actual price, while the other half had a booklet with the asking price substantially lower than the real asking price.
Sure enough, the agents exposed to the higher false asking price suggested a higher asking price than those who were exposed to the lower false asking process. Given the results of the Wheel of Fortune experiment, that is no surprise.
In an interesting twist, all the agents were convinced the price they saw had no effect on their recommend price. After all, they assured the experimenters, they were professionals who did such recommendations for a living and were practiced enough that an unrealistically high or low would not influence them.
The experiment was repeated with a group of business students. The business students submitted recommendations that were within 8% of the real estate agents. The only difference was that the students admitted the fake asking prices influenced their price recommendations.
This gives you an idea of how suggestible we are. Think about that. The thing that makes us unique among all other animals on earth — our cognitive abilities — is at the mercy of any random number that happens along our path. Our guesses and assumptions about the world are really reflections of our most recent experiences.
The influence of external factors like exposure to numbers or inaccurate information is only one way our efforts at weight loss are undermined. We also have to think about internal errors in thinking– what psychologists call cognitive errors, like recalling information inaccurately or confusing a set of facts with the wrong issue. Even when we get those things right there are many other variables that sabotage our efforts to eat healthy and lose weight.
This might have something to do with why so many people cannot understand why their weight loss efforts come to naught.
We cannot ignore the powerful effect of our own behaviors on the way we think about weight loss.
Recently I was discussing weight loss with a young woman who admitted she was making no progress in her weight loss efforts. She was telling me about her diet and described increasing he proportion of vegetables in her diet. As she was telling about this, she wrinkled her face into an expression of disgust and described vegetables as “rabbit food”.
This was another example of the anchoring effect, except this time with facial expressions and words instead of numbers providing the anchor. This young woman had no idea she was undermining her diet efforts simply by her words and facial expression.
In a famous experiment that opened the door to the relationship between facial expressions and mood, experimenters simply asked subjects to hold a pencil in their mouths while they rated the humor of cartoons (Strack, Martin and Stepper 1988).
In one experimental condition participants held the pencil just with their lips, creating a frown, while in another condition participants held the pencil with their teeth, creating something approximating a smile. Astoundingly, the subjects with the forced smile rated the cartoons funnier than subjects in a control condition without the pencil. Subjects holding the pencil with their lips creating a forced frown rated cartoons less funny than a control group.
This experiment has been repeated many times in many different variations and the results are consistent. We influence our own judgements with behaviors like emotionally relevant facial expressions, speech patterns and body language.
This young woman was creating a barrier to her own efforts simply by her negative word and facial expressions about healthy eating. She will be far less likely to maintain a diet with a high proportion of vegetables when she turns eating vegetables into an unpleasant experience.
So how do we control things as superficial as facial expressions and our subconscious reaction to numbers?
Haynes, A., Kersbergen, I., Sutin, A., Daly, M., & Robinson, E. (2018). A systematic review of the relationship between weight status perceptions and weight loss attempts, strategies, behaviours and outcomes. Obesity Reviews, 19(3), 347–363. doi: doi:10.1111/obr.12634
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(5), 768.
This essay was written in January 2001. On the ten year anniversary of the collapse of the old industrial economy it is fitting to take a look back. The industrial economy did not suddenly disappear in 2008; there were signs of big changes long before that, but we had no idea of exactly what was coming our way.
Economic Myths and Fairy Tales
Just as people caught up in the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution knew their economy had been turned upside down and had no idea what might happen next, neither do we. No one really knows what is going on with the economy. Economists in academia who we have traditionally depended upon to unravel economic mysteries and predict future trends can’t seem to agree on what’s happening. While some argue that we are on the verge of an economic Golden Age due to the increasing technical educational of the American work force, others claim that we are facing the same kind of demographically induced calamity that crushed the Japanese economy in the mid 1990’s.
Maybe in another fifty or one hundred years historians will assign a name to the revolution now occurring around us. Although to our eyes the modern economy is a chaotic and unpredictable place, historians of the future will see how our present upheaval merges nicely into the streams of time.
A lot of people who should really know better don’t seem to be aware that basic precepts and standards that applied to economics or employment a few years ago no longer exist. Indeed, employment counselors often tell their new clients that “there’s a place in the job market for everyone”, at the same time that the numbers of long term unemployed is higher than it ever has been and continues to grow.
Just figuring unemployment is challenging. So challenging, in fact, that government statisticians often use six different formulas to figure the state unemployment rate. One of the middle numbers is usually given to newspapers and the public as the “official” unemployment rate. The government isn’t trying to hide anything; it’s just that there is no easy way to define unemployment. And if there isn’t a good way to define unemployment, it’s impossible to put a number on how many people are unemployed. Click here to read all about it.
It’s Nothing New
The truth is that we are in a position similar to that which Americans and Europeans found themselves during the early 1800’s. Although craftsmen of many disciplines existed at that time, the real engine of the worldwide economy was farming. Just about everyone was a farmer — just about everyone had to be because farming was so labor intensive. At that time, economics had been closely tied to agriculture for as long as anyone could remember. A trained economist who knew a little about he weather, growing seasons and transportation could make some pretty accurate predictions about economic trends.
This all began to change in 1781 when James Watt reinvented the steam engine and made it a practical source of power for use in manufacturing plants. It was a much slower world in those days, and at the dawn of the 19th century steam engines were still an expensive curiosity. Gradually though, industry saw the advantages of replacing horses with steam engines. This incredible new technology was much cheaper to maintain and operate than horses, and (unlike water power) could be located just about anywhere.
By 1825 a world shattering transformation was occurring. Thanks to the ever increasing use of steam power agriculture was becoming more efficient, and fewer people were needed to operate the new steam powered grinding and milling machines. At the same time heavy textile industries were flourishing in England and Germany, and the Northern United States began a century long industrial building boom that produced the Steel Belt — that portion of the north central United States that would produce most of the worlds raw steel, trains, railroad tracks, and later, trucks, automobiles and war material.
Young people in Europe and the Eastern United States began leaving farms and moving to cities to work in the new high paying industries. Suddenly craftsmen who had labored for years in order to learn to make beautiful silver and copper dining sets or hand stitched saddles and tack found themselves out of work. With the aide of steam power goods that were once the product of intense and conscientious men patiently creating practical art could be manufactured en mass faster and cheaper than an army of craftsmen. The legend of John Henrys race with the steam engine is a cultural myth invented to explain this bit of economics. (The young ‘uns who entered elementary school after the teaching of American culture became passé can visit the John Henry Homepage to find out about this very relevant allegory.)
Of course, these dramatic changes created some harsh truths for a lot of people. Suddenly skills and abilities that had ensured economic security and social status for centuries counted for nothing. Workers who had been displaced by this technological advancement would need to learn new ways to fit into an economy driven by the steam engine. People who failed to integrate into the new economy faced major consequences — it was as if they no longer existed for any economically related purpose. Men who had previously been artists in metal, wood and leather now found themselves faced with the ignoble future of either shoveling coal to fuel the steam engines, or if they too old to compete with 18 year olds at the end of a shovel, simply becoming burdens to their children.
Does This Sound Familiar?
It should. We are experiencing the same sort of economic upheaval right now. Computers and the Internet are reshaping the entire economy, and jobs that were once plentiful have now either disappeared, or have become unrecognizable. At the same time, measures of economic health are quickly losing their ability to reflect important aspects of the economy.
For example, the service manager of the biggest auto dealership in my city says that that his biggest headache is finding mechanics. This sounds strange to those who remember the old world of fifteen or twenty years ago when it was easy for garages and dealerships to find mechanics. Back then lots of kids were so fascinated by turning wrenches that they trained themselves to be auto mechanics by working on their friends cars for little or nothing. There was a bottomless reservoir of mechanics anytime one was needed.
Today, though, cars run on software and silicone as much as they do on gasoline and rubber. Modern autos are loaded with computers that control so many aspects of the vehicle that diagnostic computers are consulted before a wrench is ever pulled from a toolbox.
What we used to think of an as a mechanic no longer exists.
Anyone attempting repairs on a modern vehicle needs a formal technical education in order to perform anything more complex than an oil change. In the mechanics place is a highly trained technician who understands the sophisticated interplay of computer chips, circuit boards, and hot moving parts. Young people with the basic skills and talents for this type of job are becoming more and more rare.
That’s because it takes far more than a mechanical aptitude and a desire to work on cars to become a mechanic these days. Candidates must be able to read and write well, have knowledge of basic science, (especially physics and chemistry), be computer and Internet literate, and accept the fact that constant improvements in automotive technology means constant education for automotive technicians. With these basic qualifications a young person might get accepted into a training program at a community college and pay $7500 for a two-year course that will be relevant only for vehicles produced three to five years after graduation.
Not surprisingly, there are few people willing to take this road. Young people possessing the degree of talent, intelligence and academic commitment needed to be an automotive technician tend to be attracted to more glamorous and better paying careers.
Car mechanics aren’t the only ones facing this dilemma. Science and technology is elevating the bar for entry-level positions every year and in every industry. Here’s what the US Department of Labor says in it’s comprehensive report on the state of the economy, Futurework — Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century:
“…A 1996 American Management Association (AMA) survey of mid-sized and larger businesses found that 19 percent of job applicants taking employer-administered tests lacked the math and reading skills necessary in the jobs for which they were applying. The AMA’s 1998 survey, however, found that this percentage had increased to almost 36 percent. The sharp increase in the deficiency rate is due, the 1998 AMA report concluded, not to a ‘‘dumbing down’’ of the incoming workforce but to the higher literacy and math skills required in today’s workplace.”
In other words, in just 2 years jobs had become so math and literacy dependant that the number of applicants who did not have the education to qualify for them doubled. Think about that for a moment, and then consider that people generally believe that they have the skills needed to perform the jobs they apply for. This means that according to the AMA survey cited by the Labor Department about one third of applicants at mid size or larger companies did not realize that they were lacking the basic skills needed for the jobs they desired. Necessary job skills had become so sophisticated so quickly that the applicants frequently did not realize they did not qualify for the job.
How could this crazy situation have arisen? Because the constant advances in technology are quickly adopted by businesses in order to remain competitive with other companies who are doing the same thing. Competition has become so fierce that huge, well-known companies with familiar names that were once pillars of the economy are frequently going out of business. Sears, JC Penny, Montgomery Ward, and Rubbermaid have all either gone bankrupt or been forced to reorganize under Court supervision.
The increasingly rapid spiral of competition and technological sophistication means that workers are expected to become competent in constantly narrowing and arcane specialties. The sad irony is that while companies complain about a shortage of qualified workers, there are plenty of well-educated workers looking for jobs. The speed of change has become so fast, however, that they may not even be aware of the special skills needed to perform the work.
Sometimes even the most menial of jobs requires sophisticated technical skills.
The sales manager of one of the largest manufacturers of wood chipping equipment in the Northwest illustrates this problem nicely. He frequently complains about how difficult it is to find laborers to work on the plant floor. Although the sales manager blames the wonderful economy for the shortage of workers, he seems to be missing some important facts.
First, why is a sales manager concerned with hiring laborers to work on the plant floor? The answer to that question is summed up in one word: Reorganization. The economy is so competitive that businesses of all sizes and types are constantly reexamining the way they manage tasks. The era of mid level managers putting their feet on a desktop and reading the newspaper are long gone. Everyone one in an organization, from the president to the guy who empties the wastebaskets, must constantly prove their worth to the company. Failure to do so results in cutting hours or eliminating positions, and distributing tasks to others in the organization.
This sales manager has to remind himself that the Personnel Department was almost completely eliminated two years ago and replaced with a temp agency. In addition to managing sales, he also serves as the liaison for the temp agency.
In an economic environment so competitive that salesmen are involved with personnel matters it’s no surprise that laborers must be able to do more than sweep floors and clean windows. In a company that survives on its ability to fabricate metal into wood chippers even the laborers at the bottom of the organizational chart must have technical metallurgical skills.
That’s why laborers at this company, working for just above minimum wage, are required to have at least one year of experience in a metal fabrications plant, and be able to recognize all metals used in the plant on sight, as well as have knowledge of the properties of the metals used. This way the company does not have to train newly hired laborers in skills needed to sort and stack the valuable and reusable scrap metal produced in the course of manufacturing wood chippers.
At the other end of the wage spectrum is a man we’ll call Dave. Although Dave is bright, educated, and works hard, there is nothing particularly unusual about him. There is one thing setting him apart from the rest of us, however. He is paid between $200 and $300 dollars for every hour he works at his chosen profession.
Dave writes and maintains the software that medical offices use to organize patient affairs. Everything from X-rays to billing, appointments to insurance claims is instantly accessible to anyone in a medical office using the software he maintains. The software makes managing a medical office so efficient and economical that medical professionals are willing to pay premium prices to lease it and keep it running.
Although Dave is a good programmer, there is nothing exceptional about his education, background, or skills. He graduated with a degree in Computer Programming in 1985, and had the good fortune to go to work for a small company just starting to market medical software. Unlike most of the others who stared with the company, Dave remained in Oregon rather than move to Silicone Valley, and now is one of two programmers in the Northwest who are familiar with this software. Because his skills are so rare, and result in such economy for the medical sector, he is paid an unusually large amount of money for his services.
Job Hunting Realities
So, what do these examples tell us about jobs in the Information Age?
What they show is that in order to be competitive in the job market people need to possess very narrow, specialized skills that are directly relevant to the company and position they are applying to. It is no longer enough to have a degree, or training or even experience. Transferable skills mean nothing to employers — getting the work done is the only thing that matters. Employers are looking for people who can be effective and economical from the first hour they walk into their new position.
Here’s an example form the Classified Section of the Statesman Journal:
Drug and Alcohol
Provide clinical supervision for an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment program. Qualifications: Bachelor’s Degree in a relevant field and four years of paid, full time Human Services experience with a minimum of four years direct D & A experience, one year of which must have been in a supervisory and/or administrative capacity. Call 541–396–3173 x232 for a Coos County application packet. Closing Date: January 24, 2001. EOE
There are some interesting things about this very typical advertisement. First, notice that the standard advise touting volunteer or part time positions as a way to building skills and abilities means nothing as far as this position is concerned. The ad specifies that only paid, full time experience counts towards the minimum experience requirement.
Does this mean that the experience needed to do this job can only be learned in paid increments of 7.5 hours each? Of course not. This requirement is arbitrary — it has nothing to do with the skills or abilities needed to perform the job; it was chosen only to eliminate “non-professionals” from the pool of applicants.
The trend among employers today is to marginalize volunteer and part time experience by interpreting it as an indication that the applicant is not dedicated to the field or lacks professional expertise. The inference of working without pay is that the value of the worker is very low — skills given away for free have no value. As one employer puts it, “Why would I consider paying [an applicant with a history of part time volunteer work] when he’s happy working for nothing?”
The same thing is true for the education requirement. Notice that there is no specific field of education specified for this position. As long as a Bachelors Degree is “relevant”, it meets the education requirements. Why would an employer be so vague about education requirements?
Because the academic details don’t matter.
Non technical Bachelor degrees, (like those in Liberal Arts, Humanities and Business), no longer imply that particular skills and abilities have been learned. Non-specific Bachelors Degree requirements are included in job announcements only to exclude applicants without an academic history in a particular interest such as Psychology or Sociology, and to ensure basic literacy and general knowledge ability.
Academic degrees, like part time volunteer experience, are being marginalized by employers who view them as a tool to exclude applicants, rather than as an objective measure of skills, knowledge or expertise.
(Indeed, this trend has been present for some time and is continuing to expand. An admissions director for Phoenix University recently said that the trend on the East Coast for liberal arts and business undergraduates is to forgo job-hunting until they get a Masters or MBA degree. Think about that for a moment — earning a graduate degree just to compete for entry-level positions!)
In addition to this, the employer also requires four years of specific drug and alcohol experience and a year of supervisory experience. This job announcement can be summarized very quickly — the employer wants an individual who has been doing pretty much the same thing at another agency.
This is a common requirement among local social service agencies.
In a moment of rare candor the personnel director for one of the biggest social service agencies in town explained that local agencies tend to trade employees back and forth rather than hire people from “outside the loop”. It seems that most of the social service employers in the this area area hire off the street only to fill the most entry of entry-level positions, and look to each other to share the burden of training for positions beyond that.
In other words, there are so many applicants that social service agencies only hire people who hold similar jobs for other local social service agencies. This ensures that new hires will have the basic skills, knowledge, and training needed by these agencies. People who might have experience from other states or vocational fields are routinely rejected for employment, even when they are highly qualified, because there are so many others who are familiar with local rules, regulations, and methods of client care.
What to Do?
That is fodder for another essay. The first step, though, is to reassess our assumptions about jobs and the economy. Things are changing so fast that what might be true now won’t be in a few months or years. Of course, the corollary is that what was true a few years ago may not be true now. Loyalty — either from employer to employee or vice versa — no longer exists, and the concept of employment is giving way to the necessity of employability.
Anyone who wants to survive in our increasingly turbulent and unpredictable economy has got to make being well informed a priority. Read books about employment and the economy. Talk to people who hire. Call the people who place job announcements and ask them about why they ask for particular skills or word their advertisements as they do.
The best tool we have to make the job market more comprehensible is knowledge. Knowledge is out there; we might not like what we find, and what we find may not be what we think things ought to be, but it’s the only reality we have.
This essay was written in January 2001, seven years before the official onset of the Great Recession. The seeds for our present jobs problem were brewing even than, obvious to anyone who would look below the surface of news stories and rosy assumptions by employment “experts”. Now we must be just as vigilant in our analysis and suspicious of the pronouncements of experts.
There has been a lot written about gender differences in communication as well as many other activities, but very little of it seems to be of any lasting meaningful value. For some reason these tempests are cyclical with a limited lifetime, coming on suddenly but then quietly dying away.
According to Katherine Hanson, Director of the Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center (WEEA):
“Through-out their learning, girls are encouraged to be passive, caring, to take no risks and to defer to the male voice.” 
This might be true. On the other hand, maybe females are genetically disposed to be passive, caring, and not take risks. Human history doesn’t provide very many examples of risk taking, aggressive, and uncaring females. One would think that if men and women were genetically equal in terms of skills and personality there would be roughly equal numbers of aggressive risk taking men and women, but there aren’t. If there were traits were distributed equally female Navy Seals would be commonplace.
Then again, I know many women who have male characteristics, as well as men with female characteristics. And no, I’m not talking about homosexuality, either. There are many heterosexual men who are effeminate, as well as heterosexual women who are, well, masculine.
Many of these characteristics are very subtle. My friend Kevin, for instance, makes a decent living jumping out of airplanes videotaping skydivers in freefall. When he was in the Army, he was a Paratrooper, and served with the legendary 82nd Airborne Division during the invasion of Grenada. He’s a macho kind of person.
Well, most of the time.
In some ways, he is more of a mom to his kids than their mom is. When his kids were little and scraped their knees or got scared of something they’d run right past their mom and climb up Kevin’s legs. If you could have seen the way he was with his kids the reason would be obvious.
Kevin was more nurturing, caring and attentive to his kids than many women — including their mother. That’s not to say she was a bad mother in any way, it’s just that Kevin had maternal traits that overshadowed hers, and their kids responded to it.
He’d cuddle and coo and tickle them, and look entirely natural and appropriate while he was doing it. Kevin has traits that are unmistakably female, yet he is unmistakably male. When he’s away from his kids jumping out of airplanes or talking about his war experiences you’d never guess that he can be such a mom, but he is.
It seems to me that we have a culturally necessary myth male and female are opposites, that each gender is well defined, and that there is no overlap, grey area or middle ground. Our gender defines us. Men are stronger than women are, and that’s that. Women communicate, men dominate and that’s the end of the discussion.
That’s not true, though.
To show you what I mean, look at the following table. The word in the left column beneath each gender was collected by asking people to list the attributes of each gender.  The words on the right column are antonyms I found in the American Heritage Dictionary. If the genders really are opposites of each other, we would expect the antonyms to be as descriptive of the opposite gender as the chosen words are of the identified gender. But they aren’t.
It might serve a useful social purpose to think of men as active and adventurous and women as inactive and cautious, but I know plenty of people of both genders who do not fit those stereotypes. Some men are timid wimps, and some women are adventurous swashbucklers. And some of those timid men are adventurous in circumstances where the adventurous women are absolutely panic-stricken. And vice versa, of course.
Although a myth of diametric opposition and mutual exclusion might help us socialize into gender roles needed to establish and maintain our culture, it doesn’t otherwise stand up to scrutiny. It might serve a purpose, in other words, but it simply isn’t true. The truth is most of us are androgynous, whether we like it or not.
Gender seems to occur along a range or continuum. Few of us are male or female; we all fall somewhere between the two extremes.
In the 1980’s there was a controversy regarding gender testing of female Olympic athletes. A significant number of women — womanly women — weren’t female according to the tests. We’re talking genetic testing here, you understand, and feminine females, not the stereotypical truck driving diesel dyke weight lifting Amazon woman.
A number of women were emotionally shattered when they failed their gender test and were not allowed to compete in the Olympics. They assured the press that they really were women. They were married, had kids, liked having sex with their husbands. Contrary to initial speculation, this clearly wasn’t a matter of a few steroids or an especially extreme and virulent form of lesbianism.
It turns out that these women — and presumably a significant portion of men and women in the general population — were victims of the myth of gender opposites. Science had come far enough that it could begin measuring where individuals stand along a continuum of gender.
According to Puffer, [Dr James C. Puffer, of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine], there are a number of disorders of sexual differentiation where an individual has a [male] genetic make-up but is female for all intents and purposes. ‘Each case is very complex,’ he says, ‘and needs to be handled with the utmost sensitivity because of the issues involved.’
A case in point is the condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) or testicular feminization, which experts estimate affects about 1 in 500–600 female athletes. Although such individuals are genetically male because they have both an X and a Y chromosome, their tissues cannot respond to androgens and they develop as women. 
Here is another interesting fact that challenges the diametric opposition gender myth. Women’s scores are catching up to men’s in most Olympic sports. Olympic organizers might one day have to consider combining men and women’s events as a way to cut costs. It just doesn’t make sense to field two competitions in which the competitors are so evenly matched that they turn in the same scores. We aren’t quite there yet, but the trend is very disconcerting for Olympic organizers.
Here is a graph showing the difference between men’s and women’s winning times in the Olympic 100 Meter Freestyle Swimming event from 1912 to 2000 :
The difference in the winning times of men and women in this event has declined from more than 18 seconds to less than six since 1912. Although men and women are both improving their times, women are improving faster. In addition, this is happening in almost every Olympic event. If physical ability defines difference between genders, the difference is getting smaller and smaller.
Col. Des Barker, Commanding Officer Tactical Fighter Defense Command, of the South African Air Force eloquently summarizes the point I’ve been trying to make in this paper in his fascinating article on female fighter pilots:
There’s a reason that there are so few male midwives (less than two percent). These are not the primary or best-developed characteristics or instincts that most men have. There are always exceptions, though. There are also very few female fighter pilots, that’s a job that requires characteristics that, on average, most men possess more than most women. There are a few women fighter pilots, though, that have distinguished themselves in conflict. Very few women want to be fighter pilots, and very few men want to be midwives. That doesn’t mean, though, that those very few outliers can’t be good at these jobs. Most probably, those female fighter pilots wouldn’t make the best midwives, either.[i]
Men and women are more similar than they are different.
There is more absolute variation between individuals than there is average variation between genders. In practical terms, gender predicts nothing about the skills or abilities of the next person who walks through your door.
There is a reason that the studies we see every year “proving” a gender difference cost tens of thousands of dollars and require the efforts of highly skilled scientists to create. Gender differences are so subtle that it takes this level of time, money and effort to detect and measure them. Differences between the genders, (beyond the physical ones, anyway), simply are not very obvious.
Communication is hard for everyone. Concentrate on making sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say before you say it, and let someone else maintain the gender score.
Men aren’t from Mars, women aren’t from Venus. We’re all from Earth. Get over it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Progressive Era in the United States – that time between roughly 1880 and 1920, which saw so many reforms to industry and politics.
Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle about the meat packing industry, and that brought us the USDA and child labor laws. Lincoln Steffens wrote Shame of the Cities and we got political reform.
These Progressive Era reforms brought needed changes, but Progressivism can be taken too far.
Progressive ideology contends that government is the best way to drive social change. Laws are passed with the idea of changing people’s behavior for the better. That works pretty well, but only in small doses. It seems that whenever government gets too much power it abuses it. That is why we have constitutions – constitutions are rules that limit government.
The United States is a liberal democracy.
In this case “liberal” is a political science concept alluding to freedom, particularly freedom from excessive government constraints that violate natural law. A liberal democracy is one that gives special protections to personal liberties, such as those guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. This is the traditional meaning of liberal, and one of the bedrock principles of the Libertarian political philosophy.
The Founders of the United States wrote protections against the over reach of political power into the Constitution. Slowly those protections have worn away.
This is where the dark side of Progressivism begins to emerge.
For example, Oregon school District 24 J turns over to police students who school officials believe may be having sex. Imagine government entities actively policing the naturally occurring hormone driven sex lives of teenagers. This is especially ironic given that schools can’t seem accomplish their prime duty of teaching reading writing and arithmetic.
In the 1980’s a flurry of new Progressive laws intended to prevent children from economic exploitation in agriculture went into effect. Now one of the unintended consequences – low teen employment – is becoming an issue. Teenagers not only face grim employment prospects, now they face criticism for not knowing how to work once they make it into the labor force. At one time, summer jobs on farms taught teens about work.
Although the Founders argued against “standing armies” and the use of the military to enforce civil laws our militarized police force amount to just that. Inner cities of places like Baltimore and Chicago are under military occupation in the form of police with military weapons, military equipment and military tactics. Essentially a military force.
Their intention is to maintain social order – one of the fundamental aims of Progressive ideology.
Progressivism and authoritarianism go hand in hand.
Glaring examples of this is the trend towards insulating police from laws the rest of us must obey. It is illegal for us to lie to a police officer, but it is not illegal for the police office to lie to us. In fact, they are trained to do just that. You may recall the FBI attempt to dupe Richard Jewel, the hero of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, into making a “training film” documenting scripted self-incriminating statements.
The controversy and court cases arising out of the police use of Stingray is another example of how Progressivism is perverted by powerful government. Stingray is a device about the size of a briefcase that acts as a surveillance device by disguising itself as a cell tower and sucking up all cell phone traffic in the immediate area. The police claim to limit themselves to targeting only individuals under investigation.
Birth control was a Progressive idea originally intended to end poverty. Margret Sanger’s goal was to convince poor people to limit the number of kids they had so there would not be as many people impoverished.
Birth control does not always mean limiting births. Sometimes it means creating babies. The right kind of babies. In Germany, the government took birth control to the logical extreme with Lebensborn, a government program assisting people considered genetically elite to mate and produce children. China enforced the one child rule on their population for a generation and now faces a host of unintended consequences.
Sincere Progressive goals lend themselves to the emergence of Fascism by this process.
It is not as if a democracy accidentally elects a fascist leader, then repeats that mistake until the entire government becomes fascist. It is bureaucracies – organizations that, by design, are undemocratic and run by unelected officials – pushing their mission of managing social policies to fascist extremes.
Like school districts reporting sexually active students to law enforcement.
Or the Justice Department promising restraint when using the Patriot Act, then directing their agents to use it to go after owners of topless bars.
And birth control — intended to mitigate poverty — used by government agencies for eugenics and genocide.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about how far Progressivism goes.
First, Fascism is just another form of government like any other. It is not inherently evil, but it allows evil to flourish.
Fascism is dedicated to social unity and harmony. Anything threatening those social goals are ruthlessly suppressed. Like conservative speakers at Progressive universities or Populist organizations meeting in Progressive cities.
This lack of tolerance for the expression of social or political speech show how Fascism depends on authoritarianism to squelch competing ideas. Bureaucracies create endless rules that generally carry the force of law. Bureaucracies create and cite these rules when denying social or political comment. A dramatic example is threatening high school teachers with career ending and possibly criminal sanctions if they do not report sexually active students.
Next, Fascism features very tight relationships between government and business. Like the military industrial complex, or the ObamaCare medical industrial complex. (For a chilling documented example, see Conspiracy, a recreation of The Wannsee Conference – German military leaders and industrialists planning the logistics of the Final Solution.)