What can an ocelot teach you about making the right food decisions? Here’s how your environment influences your food choices and what to do about it.
Being Your Own Zookeeper
Some years ago, the Seattle Zoo was having trouble with an ocelot that was in their care. The animal was tearing itself regularly, leaving it scabbed and a little bloodied.
To remedy this, the zoo attempted a number of things, including increasing the size of the area to which it was confined. But the animal continued to self-harm.
It wasn’t until they reviewed the behaviors of wild animals that they found the solution to their problem.
Free ocelots catch and pluck birds for food. Could it be that the species developed the innate drive to pluck things, regardless of whether or not there were any birds to be found? Once they tested this idea by providing the ocelot, regularly, with fully feathered chickens, the cat stopped plucking at itself and returned to normal health.
So What Does This Have To Do With You?
People, just like ocelots, have drives to perform certain behaviors. Depending on what’s available, these drives can manifest themselves in positive or negative ways.
The ocelot wants to “prepare” its own food, which is positive when you give it the chance to do so. We take that “extra” doughnut we left out on the counter. If you are on a diet, that’s negative.
But What Can You Do About It?
When you find yourself making decisions you don’t like, adjust your environment to help you make the kind of decisions you’d prefer. If your environment isn’t in-line with your goals, things will be much more difficult on you.
True, some aspects you can’t change, but even small nudges into the right direction can go a long way. The proper name for this pro-active behavior is “choice architecture.” Let’s look at two examples.
For Weight Loss
If you’re looking to cut down snacking, keeping a bowl of M&M candies in your field of vision while working on the computer isn’t going to help to your goals. You’ll mindlessly snack until the bowl is empty or you finish for the day.
That’s not to say that you can’t have them in your workspace, but they should be out of view or sufficiently far away. Try that and you won’t gobble them up on the first day (like I do with Hershey’s Kisses). In general, make high clorie foods less visible and / or accessible, and do the opposite with low calorie options.
For Weight Gain
A trainee I work with (who placed in a reputable success story contest) started to see his weight gain stagnate. We reviewed his diet and what he was doing at the time, and found that after a certain point in the day, he didn’t eat anymore.
He wasn’t a “snacker,” so after his last meal he didn’t really eat until the next day – putting a large window of time to waste. To “correct” this, I recommended what was the opposite of the above: add foods that keep at room temperature to his computer area to help form that habit.
This lowered the “behavioral cost” of getting the food (it’s right there!), and offered a lot of value, because it was food that he enjoyed – instant gratification.
Leave Your Comments Below!
Hopefully I carried across what I was trying to say. Please leave your thoughts and questions below.
If you want to look further into the concept of choice architecture I heartily recommend Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. It’s well worth reading and a great explanation of the concept.
Picture courtesy of Mike Fisher.