Don’t be turned off or bored by this title. This is a monster of a topic that scratches the surface of some ideas so powerful and pervasive that if you were to follow the rabbit hole to their origin, you would be presented with a completely different template for life, love, self-esteem, parenting, business, and human interaction – not just a mended relationship with the things you put in your mouth.
We’re talking, at the core, about “intrinsic motivation” vs. the false presumptions made by the popular and foolishly-accepted psychological theory of “behaviorism.” In the model of behaviorism, it is generally believed that people need some kind of incentive, reward, or form of praise to be motivated to do an activity. And, on the other side of that coin, bad behavior should be punished, and that punishment is a useful tool in fighting unwanted behavior.
It sounds good in theory. And yes, we know in the short-term that if you offer someone a great reward or a scary enough punishment, they will comply. But at what cost? After all, the human mind is very complex. We are not rodents who pull levers when we are hungry again and again like mindless drones. We have dreams, aspirations, beliefs, ideals, memories, imagination, and all kinds of other delusions about reality that make us all unpredictable in ways a more simple-minded creature isn’t.
It’s pretty well-understood, for example, that if you draw a lot of attention to financial compensation for a job well-done, the job will invariably be done more poorly, with less ingenuity and more drudgery on behalf of the person doing it. In plainer English, pay someone to do something, and they will immediately start liking what they are doing less, and do a crappier job on it. Why? Because they are no longer focusing on the activity itself, but have shifted their attention to the reward. They go from being intrinsically motivated to do the task because it is enjoyable, they like getting better and better at it, or they are working on doing something they perceive as rewarding and important, to doing it solely for the reward. The end result is that people become increasingly dependent on greater and greater rewards to be motivated to do anything. The long-term net effect is a draining of spirit, motivation, creativity, and drive – and a resentment for engaging in whatever activity they are being rewarded for (or threatened with punishment for not doing).
And this doesn’t just seep into people’s workplace, but trickles into all aspects of their lives.
Rewards, incentives, and punishment are many ways the destroyers of the human spirit. And worst of all, they make people look at all aspects of life, their relationship with themselves, and their interactions with others through the lens of punishment and reward. I have personally found no greater destroyer of my own physical and mental self than applying the punishment/reward system to myself – a perfect way to love certain aspects of yourself irrationally, and totally loathe other aspects of yourself. This trickles down to determine how you interact with others as well…
1) Having an infatuation with people who have the traits you worship but feel like you don’t have
2) Looking down on people who do not have the traits that you find so great about yourself
3) (Ironically) Hating people who display the characteristics you hate about yourself
4) Inability to allow another person to love you unconditionally, because you simply cannot accept that they love things that you despise about yourself
5) Inability to love another person unconditionally – you like certain behaviors of theirs and hate others
6) Loving people like you, but inability to appreciate those that aren’t like you
7) And so on…
While there will always be shades of “judgment” going on inside the human psyche regardless of your attempts to transcend that – I by no means am talking about some silly path to enlightenment, which is a human fantasy that doesn’t exist and is fueled by people’s inability to appreciate our true nature (thus seeking to “overcome” it somehow). You can certainly make these judgments stronger and more polarized and extreme by buying into the pop concept of behaviorism (God I love the word “pop.” It’s so insulting, conjuring up images of NKOTB in stone-washed denim).
Before I get too carried away (I’m afraid it’s probably too late), how does this relate to food and health, you know, that stuff I’m intrinsically motivated to learn and write about?
Well, first off we can look at the one and only Matt Stone. I spent over a decade constantly rewarding myself with food, and punishing myself with hunger and extreme exercise – an increasingly common relationship that people have with food. And why wouldn’t we? Our whole society is set up like this. Virtually everything in life is filed into black and white categories of good and bad, right and wrong, moral and immoral. It is good to be lean. It is bad to be fat. It is right to be generous. It is wrong to be selfish. It is good to eat vegetables. It is bad to eat doughnuts. It is virtuous to exercise. It is bad to be lazy. And there are countless rewards and punishments that go along with basically any kind of behavior, trait, or activity. And that’s not even talking about the known detrimental effects of praise, performance evaluation, and competition.
How did that work out for me? Well, as it pertains to food and exercise, I dealt with my repeated losses to ‘exercise more and eat less’ (in my big game of Matt vs. Matt) by literally bringing myself to the brink of starvation out in the Wilderness of Wyoming on a 440-mile walk with inadequate food supplies. That was awesome. Actually, it was. Because I literally broke myself. I took that phase of my life to its absolute and utter completion only to find that it was NOT the way. This led me to look for alternative ways to live my life besides being at war with myself all the time.
It first led me to what was the single biggest contributor to improved health that I ever experienced. This experience reduced my chronic back pain, erased my lifelong seasonal allergies, and I have not been what anyone could classify as “sick” ever since other than a few barfing episodes during a foolish low-carb experiment. And it led me to eat the healthiest diet on a regular basis that I have ever eaten (if you classify a healthy diet as one with mostly nutritious foods and very little processed junk food). And it was all triggered by my conscious decision to enjoy every bite of food I ate with no other mental baggage attached to it. In other words, no matter what I ate, I forbade myself from experiencing guilt from eating it or punishing myself with less food and/or extra exercise the following day(s).
Thus, the biggest improvement in my health did perhaps come from a change in diet, lifestyle, and exercise patterns. But the change in diet, exercise, and lifestyle came indirectly from a change in my relationship and attitude towards myself – which was the primary factor in making these changes. While not everyone has these kinds of issues, some do. And for some, this is the message they need to hear more than any other if they ever expect to get anywhere with their health pursuits, or in mending their disordered eating patterns.
I also have very strong feelings about how parents deal with their kids. What is a normal and accepted form of parenting (manipulation via rewards and punishments, layered with undertones of overzealous praise and ‘because I said so’ discipline), has very clear detrimental side effects. While there’s no need for me to go on any tangents outside of the realm of food, I certainly could. Not because I’ve raised 7 perfect kids and have a doctorate in Child Psychology, but because I have had some very unique and extraordinary experiences that no Psychologist or parent has experienced – and can offer some insights from those experiences.
Instead, we’ll stick to food and food only. When pop behaviorism is applied to kids and food, it fails and backfires. The most important objectives that a parent can achieve with a kid and food in today’s day and age are:
1) Creating an intrinsic desire to eat nourishing food
2) Maintaining a connection to the intuitive needs of one’s body
3) Forming a casual and socially-acceptable approach to eating
Things that parents commonly do that take kids farther from strength in these 3 categories…
- Making kids finish what’s on their plate
- Stopping kids from eating before they are full – denying them food when they want more
- Changing the tone of their voice to one of excitement when saying things like “cookies,” “ice cream,” “cake,” or “pizza.”
- Demanding that they finish something perceived as healthy, in order to get a “treat” – whether it be something like dessert or some kind of other reward – like extra playtime, tv, etc. Remember that giving adults rewards for doing something decreases intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity. I believe this effect is even more pronounced in children. I talk about this in particular in the following video…
- Removing things from their diet that they like eating. The proper thing to do is to allow them to see that “x” food makes them sick, and thus cultivate their own intrinsic motivation to avoid it. This may be risky when it comes to things that send your kids into anaphylaxis, but regardless of how negative the reaction is, telling them they can’t eat it will make them want to eat it. The goal is that if they are going to avoid eating something, they will be negatively affected both psychologically and physically if they want to eat it but don’t.
- Telling your kids what is and is not healthy – especially if you go to the lengths of praising your kids for eating what you think is healthy for them (which makes them like eating it less, unless your kid is a mindless pleaser, in which case you should REALLY avoid praise), and making them feel bad about or punish them for eating what you perceive as unhealthy. You probably have no idea what is and is not healthy for them, or yourself. I have read over 300 books on the subject and written over 5,000 single-spaced pages on the topic and I’m still not sure. Ideas about diet can be very dangerous even if accurate (which is rare) and diminish the strength of objectives #2 and #3
- Mentioning their weight, whether too high or too low, in any circumstance as it pertains to their eating and exercise patterns. The more years a kid spends NOT thinking about how he or she looks the better.
- Talking about you or other people’s weight in front of your kids
I could go on for days, but the main theme here is that you want punishment, reward, praise, incentives, coercion, ideas, and all other forms of psychological interference to be as decoupled from your child’s eating as possible. Neutrality is the operative word here. With neutrality, a kid is much more empowered to enjoy eating healthfully from sheer intrinsic motivation. A kid will stop eating when they are full instead of when the container of ice cream is completely empty. They will eat to fuel and nourish themselves, and not eat for entertainment. They will not gorge on junk when they have access to it, which is incredibly valuable in today’s day and age because junk is endlessly available. I believe that wanting to eat junk, whether you actually do it or not, is enough to yield health detriments – particularly of the metabolic variety if you frequently restrain yourself from eating it.
And kids won’t hate everything that you call “healthy” and praise them for eating, while simultaneously yearning to pig out on what you think is the most unhealthy thing in the world.
Keep that cookie jar full and in reach. And don’t ever let them know that they are supposed to eat vegetables. The result is that they might actually try vegetables and like them, and be able to sit in an ocean of cookies but only want to play Frisbee with them. I think that is the eating nirvana that most would want to bestow upon our children. So do it and stop talking about food so damn much. Soccer moms talking about food obsessively is about the creepiest thing I can think of.