Cause and Effect

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I was talking to my friend Ann the other day about a problem we’ve been having at The Scrap Exchange; something that’s supposed to happen every day isn’t always happening. However there’s a little bit of a trick to making it happen, it’s a two-step process and if it’s not something you’re used to doing, you might think it’s done after the first step, you won’t necessarily realize you need to do something else to finish up.

I said we need to figure out what the problem is, if it’s that people think they’re doing what they’re supposed but just aren’t doing it right, or if it’s that they’re not doing it at all. We can’t come up with a solution it until we know what’s going on.

I told her I’d been looking at Holistic Management, one of my favorite books of all time. She said, “I should read that.” I said, “No, you shouldn’t. It’s 600 pages long and is mostly about livestock ranching.” I told her I’d write some posts about it and she could read those. Here’s the first. (Though she heard this part already, so she’ll have to wait for the next one to get anything new.)

I said I’d just re-read the chapter on the cause and effect test (subtitled “stop the blows to the head before you take the aspirin”) that talks about how you need to make sure your solution addresses the cause of the problem and not just the symptoms. Because if your solution only treats symptoms, the symptom you focus on might go away, but the underlying problem will still be there, you haven’t really solved anything, and sooner or later it will come back.

I gave her the example that Allan Savory gives in the book, about his tractors breaking down. When he first asked why his maintenance costs were so high, people said it was because his tractors were old, the solution was to get new tractors. But he wasn’t sure if that was it. He looked at his repair records and it didn’t seem like age was the problem, it seemed like lack of maintenance was a much bigger  problem. He realized that his workers had no incentive to maintain the tractors; they got paid regardless of whether the tractors were running or were in the shop.

So instead of getting new tractors, he changed his pay structure and offered the operators a bonus for every day they met a specific list of maintenance criteria for the tractors (oil checked, belts and hoses checked, screws tightened, etc). Lo and behold his maintenance costs dropped to a fraction of their previous level.

His solution addressed the cause of the problem and the problem was solved.

This idea of making sure your solution addresses the cause of the problem came to mind for me again the other day when a friend sent a link about an article in Health Affairs concerning the cost of food. I said I had seen something about the study and made a note of it; I wanted to read the original paper and not just the news articles about it. It sounded to me like the logic behind the study’s conclusions was somewhat suspect.

I also said I was about ready to give up trying to argue that you can eat good-for-you food for less than you can eat bad-for-you food, it feels like a losing battle. And part of me thinks I should just let it go, but another part thinks there’s still a case worth making.

The intense focus on food costs implies that the reason most people eat badly is because healthy food is too expensive. If the cost of food is the problem, then the solution is to adjust the pricing structure of food—tax unhealthy food or subsidize healthy food or similar approaches.

But I don’t belive that the reason that people eat French fries instead of green beans is because green beans cost too much. People eat French fries instead of green beans because French fries taste better. And because you can buy them on every street corner. And the reason you can buy them on every street corner is because people will buy them on every street corner. As Brian Wansink notes in Mindless Eating

Companies want to make a profit. If, starting tomorrow at noon, we all went into Taco Bell and Burger King and ordered only salads, their menus would change faster than you could say “Lite Italian.” Within a year, people would be able to eat at a Taco Salad Bell anytime they wanted to make a run for the border. Within another year, there would be a Broccoli King.

The law of supply and demand says that the greater the supply of something, the lower the price. It’s true that some unhealthy foods are cheaper because of government subsidies, but it’s also true that many unhealthy foods are cheap because they are immensely popular, and the economies of scale for producing them are enormous. If you’re selling a million bags of Doritos a day, you don’t need to have much of a profit margin on each one to make the economics work.

Cause and effect.

I see the cause of Americans’ unhealthy diets stemming primarily from the following factors:

[1] Taste Preference
Once you’re used to eating it, junk food taste good. (Though if you stop eating it for long enough and then try to start again, most of it is pretty disgusting.) Most people have grown up eating processed food and have developed a taste for it. Eating healthy food feels like a punishment to them.

[2] Accessibility
Junk food is ubiquitous. If you’re not preparing your own food, getting things on the fly that aren’t unhealthy is a real challenge.

[3] Lack of Skills and Knowledge
People (okay, women) used to grow up learning how to cook. Most of the time people didn’t use recipes, they just made basic meals from basic ingredients. You had to cook if you wanted to eat — there weren’t 24-hour restaurants or convenience stores on every corner. However we now have several generations of people who have grown up eating processed, ready-to-eat foods, and who have never (or rarely) cooked anything from scratch. If you’ve never cooked before, it can be daunting. (Anything you’ve never done before is daunting.) And if you don’t cook on a regular basis, you’re always starting with nothing and have to think about it and expend energy on it and it all feels like a big pain, it just doesn’t seem worth it.

I actually would not put cost on the list at all, because preparing healthy food from scratch is in fact cheaper than buying prepared processed food. And buying healthy food, if you go about it the right way, can be cheaper — often much cheaper — than buying unhealthy food. It also takes less time than eating out. [Note: This link is to an interesting series of experiments that a blogger in California made: he ate every meal in for a month and then ate every meal out for a month and made some comparisons. If you scroll to the bottom of the page linked you’ll see his note about how much longer it took him to eat out than to eat at home.]

As long as you know what you’re doing.

So then people say well yeah, but that’s because you know what to do and you know how to cook. Other people don’t know that.

And that is exactly my point.

The cause of the problem is not that food is too expensive, it’s that people don’t know how to shop for and cook healthy food. They don’t know how to quickly put a good meal on the table using what they have on hand. They don’t know what to buy that’s good for them and cost-effective, they don’t know what to do with food so it doesn’t spoil before they’re able to eat it, they don’t know how to fit cooking and shopping into their schedule. (And obviously there are other issues: accessibility to fresh food and general exhaustion from economic insecurity and all kinds of things that should not be dismissed, but that to a large extent can be worked around.)

And this is not a blame the victim thing, I’m not saying it’s their own fault. How would you know how to shop and eat if you’ve never done it before? I’m just pointing out that money is not the main impediment to people eating better, so money should not be the first solution that gets pointed to. I see increasing knowledge as the solution to people eating poorly.

I’m guessing I’m not going to convince anyone of this any time soon, and maybe I will just give up, but anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a glutton for punishment so I decided to write this post anyway.

And now that I’ve provided this important and wide-ranging exposition on cause and effect, I will range a little wider and leave you with the other thing that the discussion of cause and effect reminded me of, which is the first chapter of one of my other favorite books of all time, Candide.

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and My Lady the best of all possible baronesses.

One day when Miss Cunégonde went to take a walk in a little neighboring woods, which was called a park, she saw, through the bushes the sage Dr. Pangloss giving a lecture in experimental philosophy to her mother’s chambermaid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very tractable. As Miss Cunégonde had a natural disposition toward the sciences, she observed with the utmost attention the experiments which were repeated before her eyes; she perfectly well understood the force of the doctor’s reasoning upon causes and effects. She returned home greatly flurried, quite pensive and filled with the desire of knowledge, imagining that she might be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

On her way back she happened to meet Candide. She blushed, he blushed also. She wished him a good morning in a flattering tone, he returned the salute, without knowing what he said. The next day, as they were rising from the dinner table, Cunégonde and Candide slipped behind a screen. The miss dropped her handkerchief, the young man picked it up. She innocently took hold of his hand, and he as innocently kissed hers with a warmth, a sensibility, a grace—all very particular: their lips met; their eyes sparkled; their knees trembled; their hands strayed. The Baron chanced to come by; he took note of the cause and effect, and, without hesitation, saluted Candide with some notable kicks on the backside and drove him out of the castle. The lovely Miss Cunégonde fainted away, and, as soon as she came to herself, the Baroness boxed her ears.

Mindless Eating Update

Monday, July 19, 2010

As noted in an earlier post, I found the book Mindless Eating really interesting and thought it had some very useful and practical ideas for controlling your food environment as a means of preventing creeping weight gain and promoting better health.

One of the many interesting studies discussed was one in which people in France and people in America were each asked how they knew when they were done eating. Responses from the French people were mostly along the lines of “when I’m full” or “when the food no longer tastes good.” Responses from Americans were along the lines of “when my plate is empty” or “when everyone else has stopped eating.”

That is, French people used mostly internal cues to determine when they’d had enough to eat and Americans used mostly external cues.

Another study noted that people tend to eat much larger portions when eating from a large container (for instance a bag of chips) than when eating from a smaller container (for instance if the chips have been put into a bowl).

Given these related insights, I decided that one of the first simple habits I would try to instill would be to not eat anything out of a large container. Everything I eat has to be moved from its original bowl or packaging to a portion-appropriate sized bowl before I eat it. (I’m not, however, specifically limiting how much I can eat — if I want to have six bowls of something, I’m free to do that. I just have to put it in a normal-sized bowl before I eat it.)

We had a gallery opening on Friday at The Scrap Exchange and we have a new routine where I bring home the cans of drinks that are left at the end of the night to keep in my fridge until next month. (We’d been buying two-liter plastic bottles but there was so much waste, we decided to try this instead. It’s definitely working better.)

Along with the drinks came half a bag of pretzel nibs and some leftover artichoke dip, and I started snacking on those as I was putting everything away and figuring out what I was going to do about dinner, since it was after nine and I hadn’t eaten yet.

After a handful or so of pretzels, I realized what I was doing, and that I was breaking my rule, and I almost said, “Well, whatever. It’s Friday and it’s late and I didn’t eat dinner, this is fine.” But then I thought of my little chart with the check marks and decided there was no reason to not do what I said I was going to do — since I could have as many bowls as I wanted, it’s not like anything was different in terms of what I could eat, I just had to stop for a second and portion things out.

So I looked at the pretzel bag to see how much one serving was and I counted out sixteen pretzel nibs and put two tablespoons of dip in a little bowl and it looked like a pathetically small snack and I was sure I’d be back for more but the funny thing is that I finished putting things away then went into the dining room and ate my snack while waiting for my dinner to heat up and when I was done with the sixteen pretzel nibs and little bitty bowl of dip, it was totally fine. I felt no desire to go get more. Especially since my dinner was going to be ready in just a few minutes. Then I had dinner and for dessert some peaches (from the tree in my front yard! they are tiny, but tasty) and it was great.

So I just wanted to follow up on the earlier post to say that it does seem to actually work.

And I’ve been meaning to put up more summer recipes but I keep eating everything before I take pictures so I don’t have anything to go up for that yet. Hopefully soon.

In the meantime, I wrote a guest post for Bryant about garbage, so feel free to check that out.

Mindless Eating

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, a friend recommended the book Mindless Eating to me and I happened to run across it at my friendly local used book store (Nice Price Books) and picked up a copy. I finished it a week or two ago and thought it was great!

It’s by a researcher at Cornell University who studies food and eating behavior, and the studies themselves are fascinating (I especially liked the one about North Dakota wine) and also the insight it gives about simple things you can do to adjust your eating patterns seems really useful.

The point that I liked the most was in the end where he talks about working on changing habits.

The basic thrust of the book is that there are a lot of small things in our environment that add up to encourage people to eat more than they want or need to, and by paying attention to those things and flipping them around, you can set up your food environment to push you in the other direction.

His strategy is that you should take some time to figure out where your problem areas are — Do you get hungry in the afternoon and buy snacks from the vending machine? Do you go out with friends and eat and drink too much at happy hour? Do you take too many second helpings at the dinner table? — and then work to change those problem areas by creating new habits.

To do this, you come up with up to three simple habits you will focus on for the next month. (You don’t want to do more than three because you want to keep it simple and not try to make too many changes at once. Doing a little bit at a time will be easier and almost imperceptible, so you’re less likely to run into the difficulties people hit when trying to make a whole bunch of big changes.) Things like, “I will drink a glass of water before I eat,” or “I will plate food in the kitchen and not leave serving bowls on the table,” or “I will park at the far end of the parking lot even if there are spots closer.”

You take out a piece of paper and write down the habit(s) you want to establish with a column for each day of the month, and every day you do the thing you’re supposed to, you put a check mark in the column for that day. Once you’ve reliably established that habit — when it starts to feel like second nature and you don’t have to think about it much anymore — you can move on to a new habit.

I love this idea because it’s simple and manageable and it gives people something really specific to focus on.

A few years ago I was working on a project that resulted in a lot of procrastination, and I started working away from my office in an internet-free location to avoid internet-based procrastination (my usual downfall) so I had to come up with some new procrastination options, and I started playing pool.

One of the more interesting things I discovered while playing pool was that if I focused on what I wanted to happen — like if I wanted to hit the ball really hard, and I thought about hitting the ball really hard — I would invariably make a terrible shot. (Random aside, a guy I was playing with once told me that to hit it hard I should pretend I was hitting my boyfriend upside the head — “Just smack it. Smack it as hard as you can.”) But if I focused on what I needed to do to hit the ball hard — draw my elbow straight back, keep my arm close to my body — more times than not, the shot would be great.

And I think that revelation totally fits with the Mindless Eating approach.

You break down your problem into small, very specific pieces, then focus on one piece at a time. So you’re not thinking about the larger issue at all (hitting the ball hard, losing weight) you’re taking action to address specific problems (keeping your elbow straight, not taking seconds at dinner). Once one problem is fixed, you can move on to the next.

I think this idea can be applied to almost anything — not just health-related things like eating better and exercising more but any problem area in you life, from watching less tv to keeping your house clean to spending more time with friends and family. Pick one thing you do that causes problems and work on changing that one thing. Once that’s changed, pick something else. You probably won’t see immediate results, but you’ll make steady progress and that’s likely to be more sustainable than larger, more drastic changes.

And definitely check out the book if you get the chance — Mindless Eating by Bryan Wansinik, Ph.D. — or for you short-attention span folks, the website.