Professor shows a path to painless weight loss.

Professor shows a path to painless weight loss.


We use mental availability, or how quickly something pops into our head, as a rule of thumb in evaluation. We pay the most attention to and assume the superiority of things that spring most easily to mind.

Thanks to this simple fact, we can persuade people by changing circumstances rather than changing minds. While minds resist change, circumstances are often more malleable.

When we want to help someone, even help ourselves, lose weight, changing the mental availability of the options can be a rather painless approach. If the soft drinks, potato chips, and cookies are put away in the cabinet and what’s on the counter, available psychologically and physically is a bowl of attractive fruit, we influence the outcome. When someone is looking for a snack, fruit won’t always be chosen, but by making fruit more mentally available and junk food less available, we’ve increased the chances that fruit will be picked.

Dr. Brian Wansink is a Professor and Director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab. He and his colleagues just completed their Syracuse Study. In the study, they photographed everything in the kitchens of 240 households and weighed the members. He found that the typical woman who had soft drinks out anywhere in her kitchen, weight 25 pounds more than her neighbor who didn’t have soft drinks out. He also found that the typical woman who had fruit out anywhere in her kitchen weighed 13 pounds less than the neighbor who didn’t have any fruit out in her kitchen.

Of course, what’s out in the kitchen and one’s weight are mutually causal. People who are overweight tend to have junk food out in their kitchen, and people who have junk food out in their kitchen tend to eat it and be overweight.  Similarly, people, who are careful what they eat, tend to have fruit out and people who have fruit out tend to eat more fruit and less junk food and be thinner.

We can change behavior by changing circumstances instead of changing minds. If we make the options we would like to see chosen more mentally available and make the other options less mentally available, our persuasion will be both successful and easy to take.

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