Seth Roberts, Guest Blogger (Part III)

Here’s a third post from our guest blogger, Seth Roberts, a psychology professor at Berkeley and, apparently, the next American diet guru. If you need to get up to speed on Seth’s unorthodox research with weight-loss, mood, and sleep, click here (our N.Y. Times article about him), here (research extras and pix), here (the first round of reader comments), here (for Seth’s first guest-blog, including comments and questions), and here (his second guest-blog).

“Freakonomics and Me”
Wed., Sept. 14
When Dubner contacted me about writing about my self-experimentation, I thought I finally knew what freakonomics meant: freakishly lucky.

My ideas had been written about before. A columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, call her Person X, is a friend of friends of mine. She interviewed me and wrote about my idea that faces on TV can improve mood. I had no complaints but a year later a friend said, “She made fun of you, Seth” — gentle fun, to be sure — and he was probably right. My work also attracted the attention of Andrew Solomon, who interviewed me for The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a great book. I like and admire Andrew. I was quite happy with what he wrote but even I could see that it wasn’t flattering in a normal way. It was flattering to have been mentioned at all.

Person X and Solomon were perfectly good writers. They told the truth. My claims about mood were so non-standard that they were indeed humorous (Person X) and highly alternative (Solomon) — no doubt about it. But Levitt and Dubner would be the most sympathetic audience I could hope for, I suspected, because Freakonomics and my research were similar in certain ways:

1. Popular beliefs questioned. At one point, an alternative title for Freakonomics was Ain’t Necessarily So. I said that breakfast is bad for you and that drinking sugar water causes weight loss.

2. Delayed causality claimed. Freakonomics said that Roe v. Wade caused a decline in crime that began many years later. I claimed that, under the right conditions, seeing faces in the morning causes big changes in mood that begin about 12 hours later.

It was freakishly (and freakin’) lucky for me that these similarities existed, I thought, that someone who had done such research had been empowered, from my point of view, at just the right time.

I met Dubner and Levitt at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, where they spoke. Levitt told the audience that when he was a graduate student, personal computers had recently become available. You no longer had to be wealthy to study a big data set. He took advantage of this to study data sets that economists had not previously studied. Last week I had lunch with Stefano DellaVigna, a professor in the Berkeley economics department. I asked him why economics had become much more eclectic — studying a much wider range of questions — over the last 15 years. He said the same thing as Levitt: the availability of PC’s.

Finally I understood. With cheap, small computers it became much easier to study many things, including the large data sets that Levitt uses and the home data that I collect (e.g., my sleep). When I got a computer at home, self-experimentation became much easier. It was much easier to move data 20 feet (bedroom to PC) than 1 mile (bedroom to campus). Moreover, the statistical software on my PC was better than what I had on the computer in my office. With a PC at home, I started to keep much better records of my sleep. Within a year, using statistical graphics that the PC made possible, I found a surprise in my data: A sharp drop in how much I slept at about the same time that I had lost twelve pounds. Telling my students about this led circuitously to a bigger surprise: Breakfast was causing me to wake up too early. With that discovery I began to realize self-experimentation was more powerful than I had thought.

It is another case of delayed causality. About 15 years ago, Levitt started taking advantage of the expanded opportunity that PCs offered: the ability to study large data sets cheaply. He crunched many numbers not previously crunched. After 15 years, there was enough of this new-fangled research, which dealt with everyday issues, to make a book: Freakonomics.

Likewise, about 15 years ago my self-experimentation started making real progress. Via self-experimentation, I could, like Levitt, study many everyday questions that had previously been much harder to study. After 15 years I had enough data to write a (long) paper. I titled it “Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas” – not so different than Ain’t Necessarily So.

PCs are like small, cheap, high-powered telescopes, which Levitt and I pointed not at outer space but at everyday life. One thing they made visible was delayed causality, the everyday equivalent of very faint stars. As in all areas of science, when it became possible to study something for the first time, many popular beliefs turned out to be wrong. Attacks by real-estate agents on Levitt and Dubner are essentially the same as attacks by creationists on evolution. It was not freakish luck that Levitt’s research resembled mine; there was a reason for it.

Note: I wrote the preceding post a week ago, before seeing the article. I failed to realize a third reason to expect sympathetic treatment: Levitt himself had been written about.

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  1. Bill Quick says:

    “Seven pounds in three days?”

    Yeah, that’s what the scales say. I’m 5’10, and weighed 237 to start with. Tha’s a BMI of 34 or thereabouts. However, I was a wrestler in high school, and these days I get in about five hours of road cycling a week, to go along with my weightlifting regimen, so BMI doesn’t quite tell the whole tale. At any rate, anybody who wrestled seriously knows about inducing much faster weight loss than that. When I was wrestling in the 160 range, I would lose ten pounds in a couple of days as a matter of course before weigh-ins. I didn’t quite do a full fast, but I was trying to test the appetite suppressant qualities of Roberts’ strategem, so I ate very little except for the oil and the sucrose water, because I wanted to see if I felt the hunger pangs I lived with for years as an athelete. I didn’t.

    “You must be huge!”

    Mmm, lessee: Unsolicited insults launched against a stranger by a coward hiding behind anonymity. You must be a huge…jerk!

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  3. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, for the insult. I should have used the technical term: you’re “obese”.

    Here’s some conventional wisdom that has never been disputed (not in any meaningful way, at least): you’ll lose weight if you eat less and exercise more.

    Saying that you lost seven pounds in three days may be factual, but disingenuous. It sends the wrong message to people who are easily impressed with this kind of thing (including me).

    Tricking your body into losing weight? It might work, but does it make sense?

    As to your other points: I am a jerk, but how do you know we’re strangers?

    – Anonymous

    p.s. Dad says hi.

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  4. Glen says:

    Okay, I think I have figured it out.

    I think Mr. Roberts has rediscovered the notion that one can alleviate hunger better with many small meals than with a few big ones. There is a lag between the body getting enough calories and the hunger sensor getting switched off. If you eat slowly enough or in small enough chunks you are less likely to “overshoot” and eat more than the bare minimum required to turn off that sensor. Some people succeed at losing weight by this method.

    Ah, but how to snack safely? People who start eating, say, a few potato chips as a snack can find it hard to stop. Mr. Robert’s solution: snacks that are monotonous, tasteless, maybe even a little nauseating. His snacks relieve hunger because they contain calories, but don’t encourage more eating because they are unappetizing.

    Rice cakes would probably work equally well. Or any food designed to taste /bad/ rather than simply lacking in taste. It’s not breaking a taste-hunger response in general but merely for that moment – bland or nauseating food discourages hunger right at the time you eat or drink it.

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  5. I am “Seth’s friend Tim” (Timothy Beneke) who lost 100 pounds pictured with a “before” (March 1999) and “after” (September 1, 2005) picture in the photo gallery. (Before: After: I made use of Seth’s basic principle that calories with weak or even zero taste reduce hunger, and developed a new method. Consuming calories with weak taste, and more recently, with zero taste, practicing what I call “taste celibacy” has enabled me to lose the weight.

    Some weight details:
    November 2, 1999 — weight: 280. Began eeating weaker tasting low glycemic index foods — eating fruits instead of juice, cutting out strong tasting desserts; no bread or potatoes; eating more low GI fruits and vegies (I used the book “The Glucose Revolution” as a guide to glycemic index.)

    September 2000. weight: 250.

    July 2003. Weight: 250. Began using roughly 350 calories of Star light-tasting olive oil a day scattered between meals, and continued to eat somewhat weaker tasting/low GI foods.

    June 2004. Weight 210. Began experimenting with a mush, composed of liquified fruits and vegetables, mixed with a powder made of brown rice, almond meal, flax seed meal, dry non-fat milk, garbonzo powder, potato flour, and soy protein powder. I cooked it all together in water until it reached a moderately hard consistency. Then I take a tiny spoon, take some mush, and place it in my mouth, and take a big gulp of water and float it down my throat bypassing taste. I wash my my mouth out with water if I notice any lingering taste residue — which is rare. Doing 25% of my calories with mush and olive oil only kept me at 210 for 10 months.

    April 22, 2005. Weight 210. Then I began experimenting with total taste celibacy — getting, initially for a few days 100% of my calories taste free. Between April 22, and today, September 17, averaging about 75% of my calories taste free, I’ve gone from 210 to 177, and am confident I can lose a bit more. I plan to lose another 8 pounds. I found, to my surprise that while taste celibacy deprives me of a certain pleasure, it’s also liberating because eating has been such a source of worry, guilt, anxiety and ambivalence for so long.

    There is a great deal more I could say but will stop for now.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Is this diet supposed to work only by reducing appetite or also by increasing metabolism.

    I ask because I rarely eat more than 1200 cal/day. If I get ~ 600 from sugar water, that doesnt leave much for vegetables and protein.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    For an outstanding visual display self-collected behavioral data see Ben MacNeill’s Trixie Update.

    For instance, here’s his daughter’s Sleep Record for the last 14 days.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    I have been getting a kick out of the people who have been asking Seth to post the specifics of his weightloss plan.

    Come on people, the point of the article was on self-experimentation. Seth has pointed the way, let’s grab the self-experimentation ball and run. Try some sugar water solution, track your weight and see what works for you. Maybe we can get a webpage going of posted results.

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