The Easiest Way to Control How Much We Eat

This post is part of an ongoing series of mini-posts entitled Daily Learning, wherein I attempt to convey some interesting factoid that I learned that day and my very brief thoughts on it.

What I Learned

Container size matters. A lot.

Researchers at Cornell University ran a study on 158 moviegoers examining their popcorn-eating habits. The goal was to study the effect of the popcorn containers’ size on the amount of popcorn consumed. Each participant received a giant tub of popcorn—more than any normal person could consume in the span of a 2-hour movie. But for half of them, the effectively-infinite supply of popcorn was twice the size. To rule out the effect of taste, for half of the study they used 14-day-old, stale popcorn; people ate the popcorn because it was there, not because it was delicious.

After the movie, participants were asked “Do you think the size of the popcorn bucket had any effect on how much you ate?” to which there was an almost universal response of “No, of course not.”

The numbers told a different story.

The moviegoers who had been given a double-sized infinite-supply of fresh popcorn ended up eating 45.3% more than their half-sized counterparts. With the stale popcorn this effected was diminished to a still amazing 33.6%.

Where I Learned It

The Invisibilia podcast episode “Frame of Reference.”

What I Thought

This principle can be used for the manipulation of both others and of our own selves. I’ll leave the former to your imagination, but an example of the latter that comes up often (in my life at least) is the consumption of ice cream.

The age-old dilemma: The hour is late. Bed time approacheth. But first—a bit of that sweet, creamy good stuff for a proper send-off to dreamland. But how to eat it? Should I just take the whole container out of the freezer and go to town with a spoon? Or maybe I should do that whole “civilized” thing and scoop some into a cup first?

The results of this study would definitely point towards the couth option as being also the smarter one. Especially if you typically buy the larger tubs rather than the small pints. Even if you know that you don’t plan on eating a whole tub (infinite supply in either case), you will still end up eating more than if you had restricted yourself at the beginning through spooning a set amount into a separate cup.

Conversely, it’s best to eat veggies in large bowls.

What it Relates To

1. Anchoring.

The psychological principle that describes how our brains latch onto the first quantity of something that we see and use it as a set point. One of the most common instances of this is in shopping—if a store initially labels an item as $149, then subsequently marks it down to $69.99, your brain will tell you that you’re getting a great deal. Even if they never actually sold it at the non-reduced price. This works even when what they are doing is completely obvious; the number of times I’ve heard a friend brag about getting three “$800” suits from Men’s Warehouse for “Only $750 in total!” boggles my mind. Or, more accurately, the fact that they seem to believe that each of said suits is actually comparable in quality to a suit that would be SOLD for $800 by another brand is what is doing the boggling.

2. Degrees of infinity.

For those of you nerdy folk out there who care about cool mathematical nuances, this article brought to mind the concept of how not all infinities are created equal. For example, the number of decimal numbers in between 0 and 1 is infinitely times more numerous than the total number of possible integers. These are referred to as degrees of infinity, represented by Aleph-0 and Aleph-1. If you can’t figure out how this makes any sense, see here for a nice explanation.

The Scary Way that Our Language Affects our Behavior

If I told you that someone from China was 31% more likely to have saved money in any given year than your average American, and to have accumulated 39% more wealth in total by retirement, what reason would you give?

If you are like me, your mind will have instantly jumped to the vast cultural differences between us. We’re more materialistic, less group-focused, and more interested in self-promotion (to name a few stereotypes). On the surface these all seem like they could be valid contributing factors to the above statistic.
But what if I told you that that statistic was really comparing groups of countries, not just the U.S. vs China? And that those groups are extremely diverse?

Here are some of their members:

Group A: China, Sweden, Germany, Japan, Finland, Netherlands
Grup B: Greece, Israel, U.S., U.K., Italy, Korea

Now what if I expanded that statistic and said that members of group A are also 24% less likely to smoke,  29% more likely to be physically active, and 13% less likely to be medically obese?

Suddenly it becomes far more difficult to explain all of these away via particular cultural differences. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The Curious Effect of Language

The economist Keith Chen was able to explain these differences quite succinctly in his 2013 paper through an analysis not of the cultures involved but of the languages. Specifically, he looked at how the different languages went about grammatically marking future events.

The example that he gives is how different languages would go about predicting rain. A German speaker would say “Morgen regnet es,” which translates to “It rains tomorrow.” This is noticeably different from how an English speaker would have to say “It will rain tomorrow” or “It is going to rain tomorrow.” This type of grammatical behavior is referred to by linguists as future-time reference (FTR).

Through a computerized analysis of online text, Chen was able to characterize a large number of different languages as either weak-FTR (Group A), or strong-FTR (Group B).

Now think: what do all of the above statistics have in common?

They all reference behaviors that require difficult actions in the present to yield a benefit in the future.

Chen describes his theory as follows:

“In this paper I test a linguistic-savings hypothesis: that being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. This hypothesis arises naturally if grammatically separating the future and the present leads speakers to disassociate the future from the present. This would make the future feel more distant, and since saving involves current costs for future rewards, would make saving harder. On the other hand, some languages grammatically equate the present and future. Those speakers would be more willing to save for a future which appears closer.”

It is definitely possible that there are also cultural differences coming into play with regards to these behaviors. You could even posit that some of the linguistic differences may have arisen from the cultural rather than the other way around.

However, through the use of cultural surveys and a careful statistical analysis Chen is able to show that the data1 doesn’t quite behave as if the two were fully correlated. There is something else going on that is distinctive to the language itself, operating at a different level of our psyche.

This of course begs the question: Should we all start learning Chinese to teach to our children? Or at least German?

Ladyboys in Thailand

Well that came out of left field didn’t it?

Don’t worry- I promise it’s actually a related topic.

The Background

Ladyboys (or ‘transgender women,’ or ‘Kathoey’, but they actually prefer to be called ‘ladyboy’) are everywhere in Thailand. You see them on the streets, in the bars, putting on shows, or even leading tours.

They tend to be proud, flirtatious, and totally open about every aspect of who they are.

My tour guide, “Miss Thailand” was full of such delightful quotes as:

“When visiting the monkeys without food, you have to cross your legs when you walk, otherwise they’ll try to steal your banana and run away with it.”

Her: “You from states? How long you are?”
Him:”Two weeks”
Her: “No, how loong?” Points down.

Me together with my tour guide Jennifer, or "Miss Thailand
Me together with my tour guide Jennifer, or “Miss Thailand

But why is it like this in Thailand and almost nowhere else?

Here are the top three answers that I was able to get:

  1. It has to do with the large prostitution industry spawned by the hundreds of thousands of United States soldiers passing through during the Vietnam war.
  2. 95% of Thailand is Buddhist. In Buddhist scriptures there are actually three genders referenced, and which one you are is just seen as another facet of your karmic lot. This leads to little to no cultural stigmas around transgendered individuals.
  3. In the Thai language most pronouns used to reference others are gender neutral. The same “khun” is used as a formal “Mister” or “Miss,” “pee” is used to reference an older brother or sister, and a similar pattern is found in many other locations. Conversely, at the end of every single sentence a man will add the word “krap” and a woman will add “ka.” These words have no meaning other than to add politeness and to indicate gender. This leads toward a general perception of gender being self defined.

This third explanation is the one that started me thinking about this entire topic. The fact that the structure of the language we speak can have such a strong impact on the ways that we think and behave really makes me start to think about a part of our lives that we all just take for granted. Maybe there are some benefits to a man-made language like esperanto beyond just ease of learning. Could we come up with a brand new language designed to give maximum benefit in every aspect of life?

And how do elvish and klingon compare?

Why a Good Chocolate Bar is Like a Diamond

Chocolate Tempering

Have you ever tried to break a piece of chocolate in half only to have it crumble instead of snap (e.g. with those Israeli Mekupelet chocolate sticks)? Apparently there’s a cool scientific reason for this.

I was listening to an interview with Seth Godin today on the Tim Ferris Experiment, and for a few minutes he was speaking about his new obsession with chocolate. After a glowing review of these guys which gave me a serious chocolate craving (which I have unfortunately yet to satisfy), he mentioned a part of the chocolate making process called tempering. I had previously only thought of the word in either metallurgical or metaphorical contexts and so was instantly curious.

Seth described it as a process that “lines up all of the molecules in the chocolate in one direction,” allowing good chocolate to snap instead of crumble when breaking and giving a bit of a sheen to the surface. Chocolate and esoteric science being two of my most favorite things in this world, I couldn’t just leave it at that.

It turns out that cocoa butter molecules can form six different types of crystalline structures. Each one has a different melting point and slightly different physical properties, the most desirable of the bunch being form V. Chocolate is tempered by cooling and reheating to very precise temperatures so as to eliminate all of the crystals with lower melting points leaving only the V’s, which then work as seed crystals for the rest of the chocolate. Once it has fully cooled, a properly tempered bar of chocolate is really a crystalline structure just like a precious gem. But way more delicious.

Is this knowledge useful? Probably not for most people. But I’ll definitely be thinking of little chocolate gemstones and snowflakes next time I snap a bar.

I didn’t want to bore you with the more elaborate details, but for anyone whose curiosity was really piqued here is a nice article that gets into more specifics about how the process is carried out.

P.S. – Why am I writing about random chocolate facts when I’m supposed to be showing all sorts of cool Thailand pictures? Because those posts will be way longer and I’m a bit busy being in said pictures 🙂

A Proven Way to Boost Performance in Public Speaking and Otherwise Mitigate Social Anxiety

–I hate your psych-babble, just tell me what to do:

Change your self-talk from first to second/third person. No, “I can do this. What they think about me doesn’t affect me.” Instead make it “Avisha can do this. What they think about Avisha doesn’t affect him.”

Research shows that making this change will significantly reduce anxiety and boost performance, particularly in social contexts.

Of course if you use Avisha’s name then the benefits for all those non-Avishas out there have yet to be proven. But feel free to give it a shot and let Avisha know how it goes.

It works for LeBron.



More Psych-Babble Please

The primary mechanism in play here is something called “self-distancing.” We tend to go through our lives extremely self-focused, constantly interpreting everything that happens through the lens of how it could affect us or be because of us. And because we are so self-focused, we instinctively assume that everyone else is focused on us as well.

Imagine that you are about to go out to a party when you realize that you have a distinctive pimple on your cheek. You try to cover it up, and your friends tell you that it’s barely noticeable, but still you end up going through the entire evening just knowing that every person in the room is covertly staring at you and it.

Now imagine that your friend had the pimple, and you were the one telling her that it was barely noticeable. Even if you were lying a little bit to make her feel better, I bet that you would very quickly forget about it and barely even recognize it when interacting with her throughout the evening.

If only you could view yourself not as yourself but as your own friend.

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a meta-analysis of 6 other studies on self-talk. Participants in these studies were subjected to social-anxiety-inducing situations and given clear instructions on how to mentally prepare themselves, either with first or 2nd/3rd person references. These situations included meeting someone for the first time and being told they have to make a good impression as well as being instructed to give a public speech with only five minutes of prep-time. Researchers measured performance through a combination of proven emotional surveying techniques and careful live analysis by judges.

Across the board, participants in the non-first-person groups demonstrated lower levels of anxiety before, during, and after the activity. They also were more likely to view the upcoming activity as a challenge rather than as a threat and less likely to spend much time dwelling upon their performance after the fact. Finally, and possibly most relevantly, they actually performed noticeably better on the activity itself.

It may sound a bit silly, especially if you are the type to actually verbalize your self talk, but I highly recommend giving it a try. Avisha knows he will.

It’s even kinda fun.

Free Throws and Psychology: I’m good at one of these things

The world record for Most Consecutive Free Throws in basketball is currently held by a man named Ted St. Martin. He shot 5221 consecutive throws over a span of 7 hours and twenty minutes, more than doubling the previous record of 2750. Ted was never in the NBA. He didn’t play on a college team. He didn’t even play in high school.

So what was Ted’s background that allowed him to accomplish this amazing feat? He was a dairy farmer. He attributes his success at free throws to the discipline learned through spending hours on end milking cows and having to constantly wake up in the middle of the night to birth them.

But is this really so amazing? If you stop and think about it, a free throw is a shot with no interference and as much prep time as you need, taken from a mere 15′ away from the backboard. Professional players who spend all of their lives focused around this one game shouldn’t have any problem with that. Right?


The 2015-2016 NBA average for free throws was only 75.6%. That means that professional players miss 1 in 4 uncontested shots from 15′ away.

Ed Palubinskas, the “Free Throw Doctor” of the NBA, is famous for saying that free throws are 90% psychological. In fact, when training Shaq he had Shaq sometimes train blindfolded so as to try and shake his ingrained psychological aversion to free throws (blinding him shifted the focus from it being a free throw to just the biomechanics). This seems to be in keeping with Ted’s claim of mental discipline being key.

Shaq blind free throw
Shaq blind free throw


Dirk Nowitzki, one of the NBA’s all time top shooters, had a career free throw accuracy of 87.9%. He talks about how one of his early coaches had him sing a song while going up there to “get himself out of his head”.

I would posit that it is best to view the psychological and physiological as two parts of a larger, interconnected system. You need both the carefully trained muscle patterns and a way to consistently access those particular sequences.

Dirk’s coach’s tip taps into something that psychologists call “reinstatement theory,” a way of looking at memory and performance in terms of their greater environmental context. I’m sure most people have heard some college student claiming how “I learned this while drunk so I need to be drunk to remember it.” Well, they actually could be correct.

Psychologists have shown how the biggest factors in memory storage and recall are our physical senses. And they are all active all the time- there is no disentangling the particular visual or kinesthetic memory from their accompanying auditory or olfactory cues (although some cues may be stronger than others). Remember one and you remember the rest.

One interesting study on reinstatement theory was carried out by Steven M. Smith. He had students in three groups all studying the same material. One group did it while listening to Milt Jackons’s “People Make the World Go Round,” another to Mozart, and the third to nothing. He then tested portions of each of these groups in all three types of backgrounds. The results across the board were that those who listened to the same music during both studying and testing performed almost twice as well as those who studied in silence, and even if they listened to the different music there was some boost in performance.

When Dirk Nowitzki stepped up to the free throw line and sang the same song to himself that he sang many a previous time (Mr. Jones by Counting Crows), he was aiding himself in pulling up those particular kinesthetic patterns.

Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones
Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones

There are many other lenses through which to interpret this phenomena- my favorite of which is that of the science of habit formation, which I will go into at some later date, but also just the purely psychological.

My takeaway from all of this is just to use it as another reminder that physical performance and mental performance are intrinsically linked, and that there are often ways to take easy shortcuts with one through proper use of the other.

A final note to those who are actually interested in basketball and want to improve upon their own free throws: don’t just practice free throws.

Kerr & Booth ran a study where they had two groups tossing bean bags into holes while blindfolded, with feedback after each throw. One group tossed into a hole 3′ away, the other alternated between 2′ and 4′. Afterwards they were all tested on a 3′ hole. Amazingly enough, the group that had never before practiced on a 3′ hole performed significantly better.

I could go on at length about the benefits of varied practice and ways to make use of it, but I think I have waxed long enough already. My first “Daily Learning” post seems to have mutated into a combo DL + Musing.

Oh well.



Credits: the Surprisingly Awesome podcast from Gimlet media + the various studies that I have already linked to.