Changing Your Thinking Will Change Your Weight — Part Two


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.


If you liked this article, you may find these interesting also:


Can’t Lose Weight? Create a Diet That Works!

How to Ensure a 95% Diet Failure Rate

Why Willpower Is Powerless When It Comes to Dieting

Five ways to use this powerful psychological trick to lose weight

Stop avoiding exercising your mind and body

Forget Health Insurance; Live Healthy and Manage Your Own Healthcare Instead

How I Lost Forty Pounds and Kept It Off and Why You Probably Can’t

How Sleep, Intestines and Microbes Keep Us Fat

Why Physical Exercise Makes You Smarter and Protects Your Brain

Five Things I Learned From the Secret Life of Fat

How We Ensure a 95% Diet Failure Rate


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.

But no.

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?

Stay Tuned

I’ll offer some answers here at Medium, and at


Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

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

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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.

If You Want Social Mobility, Choose Your Parents Well!

A few years ago, I was researching the value of bachelor’s degrees and discovered a research study for the Department of Education called Baccalaureate and Beyond (Cataldi, Siegel, Shepherd and Cooney 2014).

It is a longitudinal survey – one that follows a group of individuals over a long period. In this case, researchers looked at subjects four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. The thing I found interesting was that about 30% of the subjects did not have a single full time job.

This caught my attention because the education industry insists that the more education one has the better job prospects become and the more money made. That promise implies that college graduates would have “good” jobs – traditional 40 hour per week positions with some degree of job security.

This study certainly did not support that claim.

Of the thirty percent who did not have a single full time job, about half, or 15%, were working one or more part time jobs and the other half were unemployed. The other half had dropped out of the labor force, either returning to school or becoming a housewife/husband.

I found this so stunning that I called up the lead investigator of the study and asked him, rather bluntly, “If a bachelor degree is not a good predictor of socioeconomic success, what is?”

He didn’t skip a beat.

“Zip Code”

The best indicator of future social status is the social status you happened to have been born into, even more than education. socio-economic status is inherited, it seems.

In his still very relevant and interesting 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies, physicist and college president, Robert Fuller argues that social hierarchies are natural and needed but takes special aim at the unfairness inherent in them.

In one passage he shares the divergent life courses taken by him and his childhood friend, Gerald, whose family owned a chicken farm. Both boys were interested in math and they enjoyed a friendly competition for twelve years that sharpened their math skills.

“At a high school reunion a few years ago, I asked Gerald whether he regretted not developing his talent for math…With an unmistakable wistfulness, he explained that it had always been assumed he’d work the farm. None of his teachers took his mathematical talent seriously. No one ever encouraged him to aim higher. He never even considered anything beyond high school. I’m sure he could have become a college math professor…” (Fuller 2003, p. 36).

Both men started at the same place with the same interests and talents, one becomes a physicist and college president, while the other spends his life driving an egg truck. The only difference between the two was the social status of their families.

If your parents were wealthy and went to elite universities you will likely follow that path. On the other hand, if your parents went to land grant colleges and end up in the working class that is probably your fate as well.

That just rubs me the wrong way. So I started researching academic studies in order to bring some sense and clarity to the issue of the value of education.

Here is Alison Wolf, (2009), a leading UK professor writing in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning:

“In Britain, returns to degrees have already dipped badly for specific groups, especially those majoring in the liberal arts or attending low-status schools… You earn more…if you go to a highly selective institution, particularly if you go on to advanced academic or professional education and even more if is a world-renowned university (Harvard, Oxford).” (Wolf, 2009, p. 14).

There is no doubt that the choice of major has a lot to do with earnings, but notice that Wolf has added something new – the status of schools.

So, if the status of schools influences future earnings, what happens when aspiring students compete for entry into highly respected schools?

Just this month the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis released a study asking this very question. Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, (July 2018), performed a meta-study of 42 previous research papers and data sets going all the way back the early 20th century.

A meta-study does not involve any original research. The investigators combine all the data from previous studies and subject it to statistical analyses. The goal is to aggregate data from a range of previous studies to look for long-term trends or consistent results.

Here is what these investigators say about how intense competition for high quality education affects US colleges and universities:

“The key intuition is that although the rising demand for college accepts all types of students equally, it sets off a chain reaction …”

“…The result is a transition from an equilibrium where all students had access to colleges of roughly the same quality to an equilibrium where high-ability students had access to better colleges but low-ability students had access to worse colleges…” (Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, July 2018, p. 36)

In other words, the competition between colleges for good students has created a hierarchy of school quality. People aspiring to college try to get into the best schools, but the schools are “sorting” students by ability. Elite schools accept people with the best student skills, while people with lesser student skills go to less respected schools.

The path one takes to a bachelor’s degree signals social status to employers and graduate programs. A path starting with community college and transfer to a land grant college signals something much different from four years at an elite university or notable local institution.

This starts making sense.

If you know anything about social psychology or sociology you are aware of one very basic truth about human beings – we always arrange ourselves in a social hierarchy. It is such an automatic and inherent ability that we barely take notice. Our social circle usually consists of people very much like us – and that means people with similar socio-economic status.

So, what is it about our family of origin that anchors us so permanently into its socio-economic status?

Annette Lareau tells us all about it in her eye-opening book, Unequal Childhoods (2003). Lareau is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who took on a monumental study of how parents transmit social values related to class their children. She and her graduate student assistants observed interactions of poor, working class and middle class families over a period of years and came to some sobering conclusions.

Lareau identified two general differences in the way parents socialized their children, “concert cultivation” and “natural growth”.

Middle class families and “concerted cultivation”.

According to the observations Lareau and her team made, middle class families tend to see their role as nurturing their children. They have the resources to dominate and control their children’s lives with all sorts of structured experiences intended to enrich their lives. These parents are highly involved in managing their children’s after school time, with organized sports, music and dance lessons and other highly structured activities.

They interact with their children much like adults, explaining why things are best done in certain ways, reminding the kids about chores and homework, and negotiating conflicts with reason, logic and compromise rather than using their authority to end them.

According to Lareau, these middle class children tend to develop a sense of entitlement, but also learn sophisticated methods of interacting with adults who are in positions of authority, such as teachers and doctors.

Middle class children, even in the fourth grade, frequently succeed in requesting special attention and privileges from teachers and other adults in positions of authority. They learn this from seeing their parents reminding teachers to respect their children’s learning style, or encouraging their children to ask doctors or dentists specific questions. Lareau contends this grows out the sense of entitlement middle class children develop.

They learn middle class “rules of the game”.

Poor and working class families and “natural growth”.

Lacking the resources of middle class families, poor and working class parents see themselves as authorities keeping their children on the proper path to adulthood. They are less concerned with feelings, opinions and thoughts, and more concerned with compliance and respect.

Their parents are working overtime, or on a second job or using time consuming public transportation and do not have the time or resources to closely shepherd their children. For these families the focus is on simply staying on top of things such as jobs and transportation instead of teaching the “rules of the game” like middle class.

Poor and working class children have far more unstructured time. They spend far more time playing with other children, interacting with extended family like aunts and cousins, and considerable time in cooperative activity with siblings and other children.

School structure is very rigid compared to structure found at home. Poor and working class children very quickly developed a sense of constraint in schools. They readily accept directives by adult authorities such as teachers, but resent the loss of autonomy and self-direction they enjoy at home.

The result is “neck down compliance” – going through the motions of compliance, but not integrating into the education system. For these kids there is no value in school and the point of learning is lost to them.

According to Lareau, poor and working class parents teach their children powerlessness in the face of schools because they don’t know how to assert themselves to authorities any more than their children do.

Putting it all together

So what does all this mean?

First, we find that bachelor’s degrees don’t return the level of value promised by the education industry, at least not for everyone. A researcher reveals a variable – zip code – that seems to influence the outcome of education.

Next, Robert Fuller, physicist and college president, shares a story illustrating how powerful the socio-economic status of the family of origin can be in determining the course of ones life.

After that, an observation from a UK academic about how much more valuable a degree from an elite university is than a degree from lesser-valued schools.

Next, the meta-study from scholars at Minneapolis Federal Reserve supporting the observation that universities have a hierarchy of value. Further, they conclude that schools and students “sort” themselves into hierarchies with poor students attending poor schools at the bottom and excellent students attending excellent schools at the top.

Finally, Annette Lareau identifies the mechanism parents use to transmit assumptions of how the world works into values that determine socio-economic status.

If any of this is an accurate explanation of how socio-economic status passes from one generation to the next, it brings in to question how much influence we have over the course of our lives. See what Robert Sapolosky thinks here, and share a comment.

Here are the sources cited in this article:

Cataldi, E. F., Siegel, P., Shepherd, B., & Cooney, J. (2014). Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B: 08/12).

Fuller, R. W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Hendricks, L., Herrington, C., & Schoellman, T. (July 2018). College Access and Attendance Patterns. Minneapolis, MN: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, A. (2009). Misunderstanding Education: Why Increasing College Enrollments Can’t and Won’t Fix the Economy. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(4), 10-17.

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If your kids are obnoxious little demons in public, try this

I see it all the time. Misbehaving children, parents either embarrassed or unconcerned, onlookers uncomfortably pretending to ignore the spectacle.

Parents don’t seem to know what to do. In a department store, I saw a father gazing at a display of jeans while his daughter, about four or five years old, dangled by his hand, writhing on the filthy floor screaming at the top if her lungs. She wasn’t crying. She was laughing, delighted with the looks she was getting form other customers. Dad was oblivious.

I refuse to be held hostage to these children. When I find myself irritated by screaming misbehaving children in a public place I leave.

Then I call or email the owner or manager of the business and tell them.

Nothing confrontational or even a complaint. Just the facts. “I was in your store a while ago and a kid was squalling so loudly that I got uncomfortable and left.” That’s it. When owners or managers hear that more than once they begin to intervene when kids are out of control in their store.

At the risk of appearing arrogant, I’m going to offer some help to parents of children who misbehave in public.

I want to offer two related interventions that will solve the problem you have with your misbehaving kids. You have probably heard of them, but have never heard them explained correctly.

Time Out and Negative Reinforcement.

Neither involves punishment and both are pleasant experiences that relieve stress and offer an opportunity for learning new behaviors more appropriate than the ones they replace.

First, Negative Reinforcement.

A reinforcement is anything that increases the chances of a particular behavior occurring in the future. Positive reinforcement means giving something that results in a behavior occurring and negative reinforcement means removing something that results in a particular behavior occurring.

For example, I’ve been going to economics sem

inars hosted by Voices on the Economy, (VOTE) for the last couple of years. I’ll spend a Saturday locked in a room with a bunch of other teachers and listen to lectures comparing and contrasting different economic theories on specific issues, like international trade, health care, or taxation.

Admittedly, I’m kind of a nerd and I enjoy these lectures. At least at first. We usually go for two or three hours at a stretch, and by the time a break comes, I’m ready to get up and move. As soon as the door opens, I’m off like a jet. While everyone else socializes and takes advantage of the snacks provided, I’m taking a brisk walk outside.

Where is the negative reinforcement you might ask?

One minute I’m sitting in a crowded room on a hard chair at a table. My butt hurts, the air is stale, people are too close, and I’m a tad claustrophobic. Suddenly the door is opened, I walk away, and I’m relieved of all those discomforts. The fact that those discomforts go away when I leave the room increases the chances that I will leave the room and take a brisk walk the next time I’m getting antsy and a break comes.

Here’s another example.

I’m at a fast food outlet, standing in line waiting to order. Someone comes in with an obnoxious misbehaving child. I wonder how long I can put up with the caterwauling little irritant and decide to make my order to go. The line isn’t moving. The kid is just warming up and now adds shrieking and yodeling to the repertoire.

I walk out the door and…blessed peace!

I’m not stuck immobile in a line! Freedom of movement! Birds are singing! The air smells good!

Again, all those discomforts are suddenly gone, and the chance of repeating my “leaving behavior” in the future increases. That’s negative reinforcement.

On to Time Out.

Actually, the full title is Time Out From Reinforcement. That’s important, because it captures what the intervention is really all about.

I can’t tell you how badly I feel when I hear parents or teachers threaten a kid with time out.

“One more time and I’m putting you in time out!”

It is a threat of pain and coercion. It teaches abuse of power and that adults can have their way with people who are smaller and weaker. Its intention is to intimidate through fear. It produces petty tyrants and adolescent bullies.

The threat of time out means an adult intend to physically drag the kid to the door of a small room, throw the child in, and keep them there as punishment. Just like those child abuse stories of parents throwing kinds into closets or bathrooms and locking the door.

That is not time out.

The legal term is false imprisonment. It is child abuse and it’s illegal.

When I hear those kinds of threats, I take a photo with my cell phone or note identifying details and call the police or child protective services. Really.

Here is how Time Out From Reinforcement really works.

First, you have to understand that Time Out From Reinforcement is a teaching method. Several skills are being taught simultaneously.

The first is agency.

Social psychologists use the word agency to mean that we have free will, can make decisions, and that our behavior results from autonomous decision-making. Self-direction, and independence might be synonyms.

Note that we are not teaching obedience or compliance. Those things are meaningless without agency. Also, obedience and compliance are fine as long as there is something to comply with or be obedient to. Our fundamental goal is the help the learner learn to act independently in unpredictable situations. That is, to make decisions on the fly and behave in ways that advances their interests, rather than result in social disapproval.

Next, we want to teach coping skills, or behaviors that have to help this particular learner overcome internal stress, like frustration, anger, boredom, or excitability.

Here is an example:

Imagine a third grade classroom. Forty kids, one teacher and one or two aids. It’s time for art, a relatively unstructured time when the students are allowed some independence and self-direction. As you might expect things get a little loud and chaotic.

The teacher notices one special needs child who seems to be on the verge of losing control. His attention darts from one thing to another in the bustle of activity all around him and his movements are getting more and more frenetic and animated.

The teacher says, “Jonny I notice you are on the verge of vibrating,” (a word chosen by the learner describing the frenetic behavior), “why don’t you go in the office and practice your deep breathing?”

That’s it. Time Out From Reinforcement.

In this case, the reinforcement is the chaos and lack of structure in the classroom causing the learner to show behaviors – called “vibrating” by the learner — typically present right before a major outburst. In the case of this child, that means a tantrum, involving throwing, and breaking things.

Before getting to this point, of course, the learner has already mastered deep breathing exercises as a way to calm down, and they have been found to be effective. He has also already gone to the office. Now the idea is to simply practice recognizing a behavioral precursor – the vibrating – and respond to it by engaging in the coping mechanism – removing himself form the classroom chaos and going into the office to calm down with deep breathing.

That’s time out.

What if the child does not go into the time out room and practice his relaxation exercises?

Chances are he will decompensate, have a tantrum, and throw things about. He might end up physically restrained, and will certainly have to clean up the mess he makes. These things will probably have an audience of classmates, adding social disapproval to the mix. There are all sorts of disagreeable outcomes and the parent or teacher did not have to make any of them happen.

They were all the result of the learner’s behavior. Social psychologists call them logical and natural consequences because they are not imposed by the parent or teacher.

Go in the timeout room and relax, and good things happen; act like a chimp in a zoo and bad things happen. Best of all, the learner can blame no one but herself. They are the one in control of their behavior.

How might this work in the real world?

Imagine this.

Mom walks into the grocery store with her five your old in hand. Immediately the child begins to cry or scream. Mom might say something like, “We don’t scream in stores, honey,” and goes about her business, avoiding giving undue attention to the child after an inappropriate behavior.

The child notices other people looking at her. She like the attention and feels an odd surge of power. She can get mommy in trouble! She begins to wail.

Mom might say helpfully, “If you don’t want to be here we can go back to the car,” and again goes about her business. No threats, no abuse of power, just making the choices clear and allowing the child to make a decision.

Now the child plops onto the floor, still clutching moms hand and puts out a full volume tune up scream. Now mom says, “We can’t stay here if you are screaming, you are disturbing other people. Let’s go out to the car and calm down.”

Mom abandons her cart in the middle of the aisle, picks the screaming child up, and goes to the car where she helps her child practice appropriate behaviors, then returns to the grocery store with the child for a second try.

That’s Time Out From Reinforcement. No threats, arguing, or punishment. Moreover, no surprises. Both learner and teacher know what happens when inappropriate behaviors are repeated.

I can hear it now. “But I don’t have time for that!”

I disagree. You do have time. When you have a child, you stop living for yourself and start living for your child. Your primary duty is to raise your kid, not go grocery shopping. As long as the child is with you, they are your primary responsibility. Everything else is secondary.

“But I have buy groceries so the rest of the family can eat dinner.”

Make sure you have some good, but uninteresting food on standby. If your kid prevents you from buying dinner warm up the leftovers, or macaroni and cheese, or whatever you have on standby, tell the rest of the family that your child was so unruly that you could not buy dinner. Peer disapproval is a powerful motivator.

Jordan Peterson talks about parental responsibility at length in chapter five of his excellent new book, 12 Rules for Life. You can raise a self-centered little bully who will rule your home when he is 12, or you can raise a decent young

man or woman. Raising decent young people is easy. Raising disrespectful hellions is hard, not because takes no effort, but because of the embarrassment and humiliations your kid puts you through, and the consequences of your own angry or passive-aggressive behaviors you have in private.

This isn’t “tough love” or any other pop psych trending fad. It’s common sense with a little structure thrown in.

Try it.

Sex Scandals and Psychology: John Watson, Rosalie Rayner and the Emergence of Behaviorism

One of the most charismatic pioneers of psychology was John Watson. He was born into poverty and abuse, yet managed to turn psychology into a science and posed questions about who we are as humans that we continue to ponder half a century after his death. He enjoyed a spectacular rise to academic fame and public celebrity, and fall from grace just as spectacular leading to academic obscurity that resounds as a mystery to this day.

What led to that spectacular fall? A salacious sex scandal of course!

Born in 1878 on a South Carolina farm Watson was the fourth of six children who suffered through abuse and poverty. His father was an alcoholic who had difficulty holding a job, but was skilled at fighting, drinking, extra marital affairs and what we now call domestic violence.

His mother was a conservative Baptist who sought to rein in her son with the twin threats of God and the Devil. The threats did not seem to do much to curb his delinquent behaviors, but were quite effective in initiating anxiety attacks that lasted a lifetime.

By all accounts, Watson seemed destined to follow his father’s example, especially after the trauma of his father abandoning the family for another woman when Watson was 13. His teachers remembered him has lazy, argumentative, and disrespectful. As a teen, he was arrested several times for fighting and once for shooting a gun inside the city limits. Exactly who or what he was shooting at has been lost to history. Although Watson’s mother was intensely religious, she was unable to turn him from what seemed to a path to prison and poverty.

But Watson had several things in his favor. He was a handsome young man, very articulate, and extremely bright. He was also ambitious, yet very conscious of his less than stellar social status. In spite of his propensity for alcohol, partying and violence he was able to use his more urbane skills to win admission to Furham University to satisfy his mother’s somewhat unrealistic hope that he become a minister. Although his peers viewed him as a nonconformist and his teachers barely tolerated him, one professor saw some value in the rough-hewn Watson and encouraged his academic growth. Strangely enough, he found his calling in academia. Something must have clicked with Watson because he graduated from Furham with a Master’s degree and gained admission at the University of Chicago intending to earn a PhD Philosophy.

His first exposure to philosophy at Chicago convinced him that he needed to choose something else to study. The noted philosopher John Dewey delivered one of the first lectures Watson heard at the University of Chicago, and left young Watson completely befuddled. “I never knew what he was talking about then, and unfortunately for me I still don’t know”, he said years later.

This was the beginning of an incredible stretch of luck and coincidence that propelled Watson to the heights of academia, and then to wealth and social status in business. Watson entered the University of Chicago in 1899 when psychology was just emerging from philosophy as an academic discipline of its own. At the time, psychology focused on how individuals organized perceptions into an understandable whole — that is, consciousness. Watson was destined to turn psychology on its head and reinvent it for the 20th century.

One of the leading psychologists at the University of Chicago was James Angell, who would soon become President of a powerful academic organization, the American Psychological Association. In one of many amazing coincidences, Watson worked as a janitor to earn money for school, and drew the task of cleaning Angell’s office. The two became acquainted and developed a respect for one another, and Angell became Watson’s dissertation advisor.

In 1903, at the age of 25 Watson was the youngest ever to earn a PhD. at the University of Chicago. In addition, he graduated magna cum laude and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. He was a rising star on the fast track to academic success, and everyone knew it. He married Mary Ickes, a student of his whom, legend has it, came to Watsons attention after writing a love letter as an addendum on a psychology essay. Ickes was from a wealthy and socially prominent Chicago family, giving Watson the social credentials he sought since his days at Furman.

At the turn of the century, psychology was in disarray, without clear direction or a unifying theme. Psychology came to America twenty-five years before when William James, a wealthy dilettante with a medical degree from Harvard, traveled to Europe where he learned of the new discipline of psychology, then little more than a philosophical concept. He found the new discipline fascinating and learned enough about it that he was able offer a class in physiology and psychology upon his return to Harvard in 1875.

For the next quarter century, psychology languished as an interesting philosophical school of thought, but failed to gain traction as a science. The problem was there was nothing to measure. Unlike natural sciences like chemistry or biology, psychology was concerned with internal mechanisms that defied measurement. Psychological research consisted of introspection — simply examining thoughts and perceptions that one experienced. Slowly attention turned to questions concerning how people related to their environment. Still there was little to measure, and psychology was not able to earn a reputation as a true science.

The abstract nature of philosophy did not appeal to Watson, and neither did the abstract nature of introspection and consciousness. His dissertation was on the neurological maturation of white lab rats — a line of study he was attracted to because it was so much more concrete than introspection.

Watson found himself in a dilemma: newly married to a woman from a successful family, and newly graduated with such notoriety that palpable expectations for academic success hung in the air, yet he did not really like working with people –the object of his chosen field. What to do? What avenue could he take that would allow him to make his mark on psychology, yet not require studying humans?

Watson turned his attention to the behavior of animals. He began to wonder why his lab rats did the things they did. Influenced by the work of Russian scientists IP Pavlov, Watson abandoned a psychology of introspection and concentrated on the study of observable and measurable behaviors. Watson published papers on the new concept of behaviorism after earning his PhD, and began to emerge as a leader in the quest to make psychology a natural science.

Then another series of uncanny coincidences unfolded that propelled Watson to fame. In 1906 James Angell, president of the American Psychological Association and Watson’s dissertation advisor gave the keynote speech at the APA annual conference in which he declared that the true focus of psychology must be behavior, not the process that underlie it.

And there stood Watson, already a leader in the nascent behaviorist movement.

Two years later in 1908 Watson accepted a professorship at Johns Hopkins University offered by James Baldwin, chair of the psychology department, and founder and editor of Psychology Review, an influential academic journal. Only a year after Watson’s arrival, Baldwin embarrassed both himself and Johns Hopkins when a raid on a notorious local whorehouse resulted in his arrest and plenty of newsprint. He resigned in disgrace from Johns Hopkins, and Watson took his place as the chair of the Department of Psychology, as well as the editorship of Psychology Review. Watson was only 31 years old.

This is when things begin to get very interesting. Watson continued his meteoric rise in the field of psychology, and began to be somewhat of a public celebrity. In 1914, he published his first book about psychology. In 1915, he won election as president of the APA. He turned his attention to social issues and began writing lay articles about child rearing and parenting. About this time, Johns Hopkins administrators rejected a proposal from Watson to research sexual activity and alcohol use among adolescents, holding that such work was too controversial for a conservative university. As it turned out Watson would not take no for an answer.

Nevertheless, Watson’s ability to sell himself and his ideas was bringing grant and foundation money to the university to such an extent that he earned a 50% salary increase in 1919 to forestall his defection to other universities competing for him. He had just published groundbreaking research demonstrating that fear of ordinary objects could be created in people under the right circumstances. His future was assured. He was untouchable, or so he thought.

In 1920, it came to light that Watson was having an affair with a much younger woman named Rosalie Rayner, who just happened to be his research assistant. Because of the social stature of his wife’s family, and Watson’s position as one of the first scientific celebrities of the 20th century the news caused frenzy in the press. His love letters to Rayner made it to the newspapers at the beginning of what promised to be a wonderfully salacious divorce case. However, the divorce case was abruptly settled and Watson was summarily fired from his position at Johns Hopkins. Subsequently he was not able to get a job anywhere in academia, and began what turned out to be a very lucrative career in advertising. Watson married Rosalie Rayner and they had two children.

The dismissal, combined with universal rejection from academia, seems harsh but makes more sense in light of what we consider very conservative sexual attitudes in the 1920’s.

There is something wrong with that explanation, however. The 1920’s were anything but conservative. Women had earned voting rights, were venturing into non-traditional jobs in government and academia and were making steady progress in areas as diverse as contraceptive availability, business ownership and political office. Certainly, affairs and divorce did not warrant such reactionary measures as blackballing a famous and promising academic professional who had achieved celebrity status while at Johns Hopkins, not to mention recently ascending to the presidency of the American Psychological Association, and the recipient of a 50% bonus only a few months before his fall from grace.

It seems there is more to the story.

Suspicion began to arise that Watson’s abrupt departure from the public stage had something to do with information Ickes family lawyers leaked to the administration of Johns Hopkins. The last thing the University wanted was to be drawn into a long and highly public divorce trial involving its’ star professor.

For years, rumors have circulated that the real reason for Watson’s excommunication from psychology was not a simple extra marital affair, but rather sex studies that he undertook with the assistance of “the other woman”, Rosalie Rayner. Furthermore, these sex studies involved measurements of physical attributes during the act of sexual intercourse.

A private sexual peccadillo and consequent divorce are one thing, but public admission implicating a university in clandestine sexual research is quite another, particularly when the investigators are also the experimental subjects. The fact one of them is married to someone who is not an experimental subject exacerbates the matter, and the allure to the press of wealth and society complicates things even further.

The story might have remained a hushed rumor had it not been for the discovery of instruments used to measure sexual response found in a collection of Watson’s effects in a Canadian museum in 1978. Had Watson and Rayner used these instruments for sexual research they surely would have maintained research notes, data and other records of their findings. It is easy to imagine that this was the evidence that Ickes lawyers revealed to Johns Hopkins administrators that led to Watson’s downfall. The 1920’s was an era of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck challenging the status quo, and flappers, birth control and woman’s suffrage challenging sexual roles. Watson’s affair might have been tolerated, but detailed notes on sexual response arising from that affair might not. This might be the real reason for the unexpected end of Watson’s academic career.

Although Watson lived an outwardly enviable life, he carried the burden of personal sadness and tragedy.

Handsome, articulate and urbane, Watson easily mingled in the upper class of New York society throughout the 1920’s and thirties. He cut a path as a debonair and daring gentleman, racing speedboats, drinking with movie stars and tycoons, and gracing the pages of magazines and newspapers. He built a huge house in Connecticut for his new family, staffing it with servants. For a while, it seemed that his charmed life would continue in new directions. It was not to be.

Personal tragedy and disappointment followed Watson for the rest of his life. Rayner died in 1935 at the age of 37. Watson became estranged from the children from both his marriages and lived alone in a small house in Connecticut from the time of his retirement from advertising in 1945 until his death in 1959 at the age of 80. The American Psychological Association awarded him a lifetime achievement award shortly before his death, but he refused to accept it, sending a friend instead.

The evidence remains unconvincing, and the “sex experiments” are no longer mentioned in psychology textbooks or histories. Just the same, if such experiments did exist they would make Watson’s harsh treatment more rational and easily understood.

We will likely never know how much truth there is to Watson’s alleged sexual escapades, but the possibility brings a refreshing bit of humanity to the otherwise dryly academic study of the history of behaviorism. It also makes for a much more interesting introduction to BF Skinner, who enters the behaviorism story shortly after Watson left, or more accurately, was yanked form the stage.