My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Be Wary of the Goal of “Moderation,” Plus a Cocktail-Party Trick.

Assay: I’ve been thinking a lot about moderation lately.

I’m an abstainer, so moderation is often tough for me (are you an abstainer or a moderator?), but I certainly hear people talk about their striving for moderation, and I strive for moderation in many areas of my life.

But while moderation is often a helpful goal, it can also be deceptive. It’s easy to forget that “moderation” is a relative term, and if you’re aiming for moderation, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “Moderation, in comparison to what?”

I thought of this when a friend told me he was going to cut back on his drinking. “I don’t need to quit, but I want to keep it in moderation,” he said. “So I’m going to limit myself to two drinks a night.” Zoikes, I thought, I don’t have two drinks in a month. I’m not saying that two drinks is too much, but rather, the idea that a particular amount is “moderate” depends on your point of view.

Along the same lines, in his brilliant book Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes points out that two hundred years ago, we ate less than a fifth of the sugar that we eat today. So eating a  “moderate” amount of sugar by today’s standards could be considered excessive by historical standards.

When I was in law school, I had a housemate who never got any exercise. None. Because of a medical issue, her doctor told her to start getting “moderate” exercise. Her solution was to walk from our house to the law school a few times a week, instead of driving the way she usually did.  “Wow,” she’d say proudly, “I walked today.” Now, we lived three blocks from school; was this what her doctor meant by moderate exercise? She thought so.

One person’s excessive TV-watching is another person’s moderate TV-watching. And so on.

Our sense of what’s “moderate” is also affected by the psychological phenomenon of “false consensus.” We tend to believe that other people agree with us, even when they don’t, and to overestimate the commonness of our preferences and habits. Because we think people are more like us than they are, we assume that what seems “moderate” to us is objectively moderate.

Also, because of “homophily,” which is the tendency of people to associate with similar people, we tend to be friends with people who have the same sense of how much drinking, or sugar, or exercise, or reading, is moderate or excessive. So you do, in fact,  see your tendencies reflected in the people around you.

Cocktail-party trick: the false-consensus effect is a way to get a (possibly) truthful answer from someone who might not be forthcoming. If you ask a question like, “Do you think most people pay their taxes?” “Do most married couples fight a lot?” or “Do most people take home a lot of office supplies?” you’ll probably get an answer that reflects what your interlocutor does do–even if he or she might not admit it, if you asked straight up.

I’m not arguing that moderation is a bad goal–often, I think, it’s a worthy goal–but rather, we need to take the time to think about what we considerate “moderate,” and why.

What do you think? Do you aim for moderation? How do you decide what is “moderate”?