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Posted: August 7, 2009 12:00 a.m.

Ask the Doc: Fiscal follies and how they apply to nutrition

"Irrationality is responsible for the economic mess we find ourselves in right now - irrationality plus greed, of course, and a substantial dose of ignorance," says Peter A. Ubel, professor of medicine and psychology at University Michigan, Ann Arbor. Dr. Ubel points out that around a third of Americans have difficulty with simple math and cannot calculate 10 percent of 1,000, much less complicated ideas like compounding of savings and adjustable rate mortgages.

Making matters worse is that most of us are optimistic and unrealistic. So we tend to believe that our incomes will rise quickly enough to keep up with our outsized mortgages, or our adjustable rate mortgages won't rise. And as social beings, we often judge our own decisions by seeing what others are doing. If our neighbor adds a new kitchen with a home equity loan, we tend to think it would be a good idea for us without a more careful, rational weighing of finances that would suggest otherwise.

We are often rational. Raise the price of sweat shirts, and fewer will be sold. Lower the quality of a product and we expect the price to go down. But studies of Ebay bidding reveals ways consumers act irrationally. Offer an item on Ebay - say a pair of binoculars that would normally sell for $100. Offer an opening bid of $10, a price consumers know will not be the final selling price, and it entices people to make an initial bid. This increases the number of people bidding on the binoculars, which makes it appear more attractive. Now consumers, who knew the price would go up, get emotionally attached to the binoculars and keep raising their offers. The final selling price could go well over $100.

When it comes to nutrition, our irrationality, combined with limited willpower, yields a substantial percentage of Americans who are overweight. We know exercise is good for us and junk food is bad. But it is just too difficult to follow through on our rational desires. We plan to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes, but stop after 10, feeling a bit stiff today. We try to cut down on empty calories but will grab that doughnut offered to us by co-worker in the morning, often without awareness of our action. These are small decisions that we make hundreds of times a day, and our waistlines and our lives are affected by them.

To improve ourselves, it is important to act as if each doughnut matters and that each decision has important consequences. Making a commitment beforehand to have no candy and no deserts will make us more mindful of the doughnuts that come our way. Running outside instead of on a treadmill makes it more difficult to curtail your exercise because you have to finish the running loop. Committing to a friend to walk for 30 minutes will force you to show up. Want to save more money? Have part of your paycheck automatically deposited in a savings account you cannot easily access via ATM car or check books. As Dr. Ubel puts it, "sometimes the best way to behave better when you are weak is to impose martial law on yourself when you feel strong.

Dr. Weekley is a clinical psychologist with an office in Covington and Norcross. He specializes in the treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.


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