Of all the human flaws we fall prey to, our need for instant gratification is one of the most prominent. The so termed “restraint bias” (also called current moment bias) is monumentally counterproductive to fat loss goals. As Homo sapiens we are terrible at predicting how we will respond to a given future scenario. We are wired for both instant gratification and a very poor ability to predict how we will respond to temptation.
We are a society of instant gratification – prone to the roller coaster swings of hedonic adaptation. Not surprisingly most of us would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later – even if the long-term reward is greater.
This is a bias that is of particular concern when it comes to achieving fat loss and greater health. A 1998 study confirmed the old adage “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, when 74% of participants chose fruit over junk food when asked what they would choose a week from that point when they became hungry . But when the day arrived, 70% chose chocolate. (1)
This is the precise reason we watch “Dumb and Dumber” on TV for the 100th time while “The English Patient” sits (not so patiently) in our Netflix cue. It’s why we are forced to throw out produce weekly that was originally destined to be consumed as salad and part of a stir fry.
We are wired to seek immediate payoff. Most people would rather take $5 now than $7 in a week. At the heart of this phenomena (termed hyperbolic discounting) is impulsiveness and our ability (or inability) to delay gratification. This phenomenon was tested in children in the well-known “marshmallow experiment” (2), where children were told they could eat the marshmallow now or wait for a bigger reward that would come later. Long-term follow-ups showed the children who could hold out for longer generally did better later on in life – getting better grades, having lower BMI and achieving more success in general.
What to do:
Here are the best ways to fight back against the current moment bias:
1. Realize it is an existing and ever-present phenomenon: The biggest issue with cognitive biases is that we are acutely unaware of them. This changes… today! It’s not an instant process but the more we are able to take a second and realize what’s going on, the better equipped we will be to make the better long-term decisions.
2. Pause, breathe and reflect: Think about the choice you are making, why you are making it and think about the long-term benefits of abstaining from an unhealthy move. The first step of self-discipline is self-awareness. When you start to dig below the surface of the conscious mind, the previously subconscious habits that once pulled you off track will repair themselves. Learn about WHY you fail: What types of situations/emotions trigger poor choices?
3. Use the “15 minute rule”: If you want something, wait 15 minutes (or longer if possible). In this time reflect on whether you are really hungry or if you are responding to a fleeting emotion. In the intervening time – distract, distract, distract. Keep yourself busy, brush your teeth, call a friend or relative, write, go for a walk, read, journal, have a bath.