Dieting Is a Losing Game: Pay to Play and the House Always Wins

Lynne Murray says:

For a long time I’ve been convinced that dieting is addictive behavior. This conclusion was reinforced by a throwaway reference in a recent New York Times Magazine article by Sam Anderson  on the addictive nature of digital games.

A side note in the article brought home to me how the diet industry is fostering addiction to dieting by presenting it as a “fun game” where the actual failure to lose weight becomes irrelevant:

[I]f we could just find a way to impose game mechanics on top of everyday life, humans would be infinitely better off. We might even use these approaches to help solve real-world problems like obesity, education and government abuse. Some proponents point to successful examples of games applied to everyday life: Weight Watchers and frequent-flier miles, for example.

I have to ask: For whom is diet addiction “successful”?

Anderson’s underlying assumptions (very popular ones, alas) are that obesity is even more evil than government abuse and that addiction to a diet program will somehow defeat this scourge. Turning dieting into a game is already happening. The success comes not in “solving obesity” but in jacking up the already obscene diet company profits.

Anderson goes on to discuss how marketers “gamify” products: “hooking customers on products by giving them constant small victories for spending money.”

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of competitive games, but I sometimes play a simple game with myself of keeping track of goals.  I grew up on the “gold star for brushing your teeth” method of teaching basic skills, and I’ve been hooked on gold stars ever since. I make little charts to reward myself for meeting certain goals in things like writing. In the unhappy days when I was dieting, I tried this method of to starve more effectively. It didn’t work any better than any other approach, and I stopped recording the inevitable weight gain that followed every dieting effort.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that the Behavior Modification class I took in college taught me how to learn as no other class had. As a fan of the gold stars in childhood, I was fascinated to see how the whole thing worked.

The professor demonstrated how a rat could be trained to press a lever and receive a food pellet. But the most dramatic effect came once the rat learned to press the lever. It turned out that the best way to keep the rat pressing that lever most often and consistently was not to give it a pellet every time, but to reward it only sometimes. Ironically this is called “a lean schedule of reinforcement.”

The professor ended by saying, “Welcome to Las Vegas. Gambling is a classical example of conditioning people to continue to play with very infrequent rewards.”

Game lovers report that the reward is not in the winning, but in the playing. This fits very well with the commercial goal of addicting people to dieting as a game they can only occasionally and briefly win. I wouldn’t stand in front of a bank of slot machines in Las Vegas and try to warn gamblers that the house always wins. So why do I keep trying to tell dieters about the futility of the practice? Until we have a 12-step Dieters Anonymous program, those of us who can see the damage done by dieting have a responsibility to tell the truth.

Anderson writes of interviewing Frank Lantz, the creator of Drop7, who cheerfully admits to creating addictive games and dissects his own experience with game addiction.

Lantz told me that the deepest relationship he has ever had with a game was with poker, to which he was almost dangerously addicted. “Somehow teetering on the edge was part of the fun for me,” he said. “It was like a tightrope walk between this transcendently beautiful and cerebral thing that gave you all kinds of opportunities to improve yourself — through study and self-discipline, making your mind stronger like a muscle — and at the same time it was pure self-destruction.”

This gambler’s euphoria applies to dieting. It is hard for people to give up on the illusion that dieting will allow them to “win at losing” and the vain hope that the slot machine of dieting will pay off despite all the odds–95% failure rate with many dieters regaining more weight than they ever lost.

What angers me most is the prize that the diet industry dangles in front of its Hunger Games players.  The lottery prize that dieters vainly pursue is the approval, love and, above all, inclusion in life that is denied to fat people. The fact that very, very few hit the jackpot (and that approval, love, and inclusion are still not guaranteed to them) doesn’t stop people from trying. The players’ addiction to the Hunger Games keeps them pulling the lever in the face of constant failure.

Just like the rats.