Column: When you have to digest some difficult news


I was excited. My three closest girlfriends — Greta, Sally, and Lucy — had invited me to a fancy new place for brunch. And they had insisted, it was their treat!

“Sorry I’m a little late,” I explained. “I was listening in the car to the author of a new book, ‘The Influential Mind’ — talking about how people process information that challenges a cherished belief. There’s just plain denial; there’s arguing with the methodology; and there’s…But never mind that. It’s great to see you all! What are you drinking?”

I looked around the table. “And where’s the menu?”

“Never mind about that,” said Greta. “It’s all taken care of.”

There was a pause. A long pause. “What’s going on?” I laughed nervously. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was some kind of intervention.”

“Ah, you guessed,” said Sally, and they all exhaled. “None of us wanted to say it, alone, so we’re doing it together. We love you, Judy, but — it’s time you lost some weight.”

I laughed. “You guys are too much! For a minute I thought you were serious!”

Greta frowned. “But we are serious, Judy! Look — I’ve been keeping notes on my phone, every time you tell me so, yourself.” She showed me her phone, with a list of dates.

“And I’ve got some photos here,” said Lucy. “Just your face, but it’s undeniable. You’ve looked better.”

“And you know you’ve been telling me nothing in your wardrobe fits right, any more,” added Greta.

Sally spoke up. “You know, I think I’ve heard about this book, too. The author, Tali Sharot, says people just refuse to believe information that conflicts with a cherished belief. They don’t listen to facts…”

“…or data,” said Lucy.

“…and instead find reasons to believe whatever they prefer, instead.”

“So if I tell you, Judy, that even your doctor thinks you need to do something —“

I interrupted her. “Hey! How would you know that? That’s private!”

“You told me!” Greta answered. “Remember? You called me up, crying, after your last appointment!”

“I remember now. You were wonderful. But then I got to thinking — the scale in that office isn’t very reliable, and besides, it’s not about a number, right? It’s about how you feel.”

“That would be arguing with the methodology,” murmured Sally.

“Well, maybe the answer is I need to eat more, not less; just healthier! Fewer carbs — like these,” — I waved away the fruit cup the waitress was about to set down on my plate —“and more protein instead.” I turned to the waitress. “I’ll take steak with my eggs.”

“And now you have ‘boomeranged’ to the exact opposite conclusion,” said Sally.

“So what works?” asked Lucy. “We’re all here for Judy because we want to help.”

“First, I’ll tell you what doesn’t work,” I said. “Punishment. Like this egg-white omelet.”

“I know; I don’t like them very much myself,” admitted Sally.

“Then why do you eat them?”

“I tell myself they’re healthy.”

“Obviously, my defenses against propaganda are stronger than yours!” I snarked.

“Let’s cut to the chase, here, Judy — does anything work?”

“Sharot says that rewards work. Our brains have evolved to actively seek rewards, but passively avoid punishment.”

“Aha!” said Lucy. “So that’s why my husband goes catatonic every time I try to talk to him about his wardrobe! He’s hoping to avoid punishment!

“Does it work?”

“Don’t be silly. But now that I know this, maybe I’ll cut him some slack.”

“And some slacks!”

I smiled. “Here’s the key: Rewarding positive actions works better than punishing bad ones. Now, dieting is punishment every minute of the day, if you ask me.”

“The question is,” mused Greta, “what could we use as a positive reward for dieting? Everything I can think of has too many calories!”

They fell silent, thinking. While they did that, I stole the mango pieces out of their fruit cups.

I’ve got it!” I said. “The answer is: control! Sharot says that the brain always wants control over situations, and that to the brain, getting control actually feels like a reward. So — maybe, if I can research enough options, and get myself interested in choosing between them, it will feel like control and my brain will be happy! If you guys can help me, of course.”

They all pledged their help. To celebrate, I ordered decaf espresso cappuccinos for us all.

I’ll admit, even if control feels good, there’s no way it could feel as good as, say, a dollop of real whipped cream. But it sure beats punishment. And that will have to do… for now.

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