dieting for altruists

So, you and your friends care about each other. You are trying to harness that fondness to get off those holiday pounds. People say nothing is stronger than The Power Of Love, after all. What to do? A certain friend recently proposed the following to a group of close pals:

Is there anything you are trying not to eat? Fried pickles? Buffalo wings? Whole Food’s truffles? Our agreement would be that anytime you eat something you are not supposed to, the others of us have to eat whatever it is we are trying to avoid. If [friend A] eats a fistful of Chick-o-Sticks, for example, then I have to eat a pice of chocolate cake. Do you see how it works? I don’t want [friend B] o have to go to KFC, so I will avoid Peanut Butter Patties. Instead of just a normal pact between us, digressions would actually hurt the other people involved.

Her friends are skeptical that this wouldn’t actually motivate them. Instead they want something like “If I go to Coldstone Creamery, then [friend A] to go jogging for an hour.” She doesn’t understand why this would motivate Any True Friend, since [friend A] has said she needs to exercise more anyway and so then by going to Coldstone Creamery all she’d be doing is making the friend overcome whatever motivational barriers keep her from something she wishes she was doing anyway.

My suggestion was that they do something like “If I go the Coldstone Creamery, then [friend A] has to cut a teensy slice off their little toe,” which seems to me like a direct and effective solution, but she’s balked at this for some unknown reason.

So: can altruism be used for effective dieting? If so, what would be effective?

Postscriptum: Regarding my star resolution, I’ve got 7 stars so far, meaning that if I don’t use the elliptical trainer again this year I owe $4,825 to founding a Best Astrosociology Paper award (whose entries I then have to judge) or whatever it is I ultimately choose as my negative incentive.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

7 thoughts on “dieting for altruists”

  1. I’ve decided that the most altruistic way to support my boyfriend’s dieting efforts is to eat the junk food that he buys.

    The “if I eat thing I am avoiding then everyone has to eat thing they are avoiding” thing seems like it would create some perverse incentives. If I really really want thing X but don’t want everyone to be mad at me for screwing up their diets I just subtly encourage friend A to eat his avoided thing so I still get to eat thing X but don’t take the blame with everyone else. This is only an issue if it’s a group pact, of course.


  2. I think I would definitely be hoping other people would lapse so that I could eat my thing without guilt, but the guilt at ruining other people’s diets might be enough to stop me. If the penalty were that my friend had to exercise, altruism would probably force me to eat whatever I was trying to avoid, just to help my friend out.

    The threat of injury would certainly be the most effective method by far. Perhaps a less extreme version could also work, as long as the penalty was both unpleasant and at least slightly bad for the friend. Maybe they could have to eat something fattening that they hate the taste of, or not just a piece of chocolate cake, but enough cake to make them sick (with the added bonus of possibly conditioning them against their weakness).


  3. I have 6 stars. Also, I heard that there is a website where you can enter your credit card number and a goal and a third party arbiter. If the third party says you did not meet your goal, they charge your credit card. I cannot find it, but I heard it is the brainchild of Ian ayres —

    But the threat of paying Bob Jones University compels me to exercise.

    WTH is astrosociology?


  4. My response to same friend was that I would stick to the rules so that they don’t get punished, but if they broke the rules, I would lie about doing the punishment. Because for me personally, if I’m truly committed to a healthier lifestyle, I wouldn’t eat a cupcake just because some farkakte rule we made up says I have to. Like Same Friend said, “you are much less rule-oriented.” Indeed.


  5. So: can altruism be used for effective dieting? If so, what would be effective?

    Some possible scenarios …

    VERY, VERY altruistic
    1) You (anonymously) give a stranger money for liposuction (ok, not technically “dieting”)/Jenny Craig/Weight Watchers because you care; they give you nothing …

    PRETTY altruistic
    2)You give ME money for liposuction (ok, not technically “dieting” but how perfect, if only I wasn’t freaked out by general anesthesia and surgery)/Jenny Craig/Weight Watchers because you care; I give you nothing … it will be our little secret but I’ll thank you …

    FAIRLY altruistic
    3)I’m a size 4 and have never dieted in my life (OK, we are really in fiction land here); I resist chocolate chip cookies which I LOVE (true) because if I eat them you’ll have to eat a big bowl of Coldstone Creamery ice cream and you have the metabolism of a whale (again, FICTION) and I really, really care about you … but if I do something this nice for you, it’s gonna be really hard for you NOT to reciprocate (maybe set me up with a little hypnotherapy and liposuction??)

    VERY altruistic
    4) On the other hand … if you keep eating Coldstone Creamery Ice Cream* and your pancreas finally gives out from cranking out all of that insulin and I offer to be your living, non-related pancreas donor … OHHHhh man, then you’d owe me big time … so maybe you promise me your kidney if I ever need a little something something? So yeah, not very altruistic … maybe somewhat altruistic …

    Yeah, I dunno … maybe close pals would be better off coming up with a killer Ponzi scheme, then splitting profits (before the Feds close in)** for gym membership and extra cell phone minutes … added benefit, everyone keeps their toes …

    *I have absolutely no idea whether or not Jeremy enjoys Coldstone Creamery Ice Cream

    **I have never engaged in nor have knowledge of anyone who has engaged in a “Ponzi Scheme”


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