I'm Done Being Inflammatory
One woman's behavior design experiment to tame her autoimmunity
In second grade, I was forced to wear an "I Talk Too Much" sign. Thanks, Mrs. Wenzel.
32 years later, some might say I'm still too chatty. Inflammatory, even (at least when it comes to political posts on Facebook).
But that's not the type of inflammatory I'm talking about today.
Today, I'm talking about the fire inside my bod. No...not a yeast infection, dork.
I'm talking about inflammation linked to chronic disease.
You probably already know a thing or two about inflammation. You might even be one of 125 million Americans (that's 1 in 3 people...me included!) with a chronic disease caused by inflammation. Yep, inflammation is the cause of nearly every modern disease: autoimmune diseases, heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and dementia.
Regardless of whether you're managing a chronic disease or staring down a holiday season of TOO.MUCH.PIE, you're capable of better results through smarter behavior design. As I said in Go Ahead...Skip Your 2018 Resolutions: "behavior is a design challenge, not a motivation challenge." In this piece, I explored the reasons behind our collective dismay and ineffectiveness with New Year's resolutions. If you're one of the eight percent(!) who actually keeps your resolutions, congratulations...keep up the great work! If you're among the rest of us, you're free to accept or refuse my invitation to follow along as I share my experiment with the autoimmune protocol (AIP) to demonstrate how to create positive behavior (and better outcomes) through design.
[Quick backgrounder: As a wellbeing designer, I help people and companies understand the links between neuroscience, human-centered design, behavioral economics, and the science of a meaningful life. The results are better habits, products, and humans. #winning]
Imagine walking up to your local retailer during the holiday season when the bell ringer with the red bucket approaches you with: “Would you have some coins to donate, please?” In this case, the person is not a typical bell ringer. He is a PhD.
A (somewhat) related study was conducted in France, where researchers wanted to know if they could influence how much money people handed to a total stranger asking for bus fare using just a few specially encoded words. The researchers discovered a simple and effective technique that doubled the amount people gave. (Take note, anyone seeking donations.) The magic phrase was, “but you are free to accept or refuse.” This phrase has been shown to be an effective compliance-gaining measure across needs (i.e., from panhandling to charitable giving)...doubling the likelihood of people saying "yes." This proved true in both email and in-person interactions.
"What does the 'but you are free' technique have to do with behavior?" you ask. It shows that if our ability to choose is reaffirmed, then we are more likely to be persuaded. This has everything to do with influencing our own behavior.
Wanna v. Hafta: The Power of Choice
So why is reminding ourselves of our freedom to choose (as demonstrated in the French bus fare study) so effective?
According to researchers, “but you are free” disarms our instinct to reject being told what to do. The pros call this “reactance,” the hair-trigger response to threats to our autonomy. Shout out to anyone whose blood boils from micro-management.
When a request is coupled with an affirmation of the right to choose, reactance is a nonfactor. We feel emancipated from the "hafta" and more inclined towards the "wanna." Our freedom to choose is a big-time influencer. Neuroscience research shows that our brains have different channels for seeking positive consequences and avoiding negative consequences. Our brains register “haftas” as punishments...so we take shortcuts, cheat, and skip-out to escape the discomfort of feeling controlled.
Key to all of this—to our enjoyment of a given experience—is our desire to maintain a sense of autonomy (see Self-Determination Theory from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan).
On today's episode of "A Grown Woman, A Block of Cheese, and But Why?"
So let's dive into my AIP experiment to tame my inflammation (and put my autoimmune disease into remission). First, for those unfamiliar with the AIP, it's a fairly restrictive diet that permits you to eat meats, good fats, most vegetables, and minimal fruits. Banned foods include: grains, dairy, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, nightshade vegetables, sugars, alcohol, and food additives (e.g., guar gum). I've been a cheese lover all my life, so you can imagine how scary the "no cheese" clause was for me. "Why me?" I thought. On the bright side: I knew the AIP isn't a life sentence. In time, after my body healed, I'd potentially be able to reintroduce some of the banned foods (including goat/sheep milk dairy).
When I decided I wanted to put my autoimmune disease into remission through food-based healing (which is really the only path to success for my particular condition), I found a few AIP recipes and decided to give them a try. For a few days, I stuck with the program and diligently prepared my AIP meals. However, I wasn't much of a cook prior to the AIP and, though the tasty, nutrient-dense foods were novel at first, preparing them soon became a chore and somewhat of a drag. Prior to this experiment, cooking was not part of my daily routine and was not something I longed to spend much time doing (I tend not to think about food until I'm hungry and then need to eat within 20 minutes to avoid getting hangry). I wanted to reduce my antibodies and the interwebs were telling me how to do it in a matter of months with the strict AIP. Unfortunately, I knew that even one small slip up when dining out (think: unwittingly ingesting just a pinch of cayenne pepper) meant having to start all over again. This made it exceedingly challenging...and socially isolating...and, despite my best intentions, following the AIP became a chore. It felt like a "hafta" and my only choice was to either cook all my food or quit. Ugh...utter despair.
But I wasn't ready to quit just yet.
So I experimented with a different approach to changing my behavior: I turned to pre-made, frozen meals from Paleo on the Go. Having AIP-compliant meals at the ready leveraged my "wanna" eat healing foods desires, without any of the “haftas” related to staying on track with extensive cooking.
At first glance, it might seem like I still faced the social challenges of not being able to dine out freely with friends. And, as a result, it'd still be just as easy to fall off the wagon. But before my reactance alarm went off, I started feeling better (in less than a week). Soon the prospect of choosing nourishing, revitalizing meals felt empowering...with a host of positive side effects: I banished brain fog, had more energy, cut my antibodies in half(!) in just two months, and (for the first time in my life!) lost weight. The benefits were generative: the more I experienced them, the more committed I became to the AIP...including occasionally cooking my own meals with recipes from Autoimmune Wellness and other great resources. For me, going out with friends became a non-issue because I could just eat before/after our time together. The prospect of feeling better was so much more important than the occasional glass of prosecco.
Clearly, it's too early in the holiday season to proclaim victory over your behaviors. But you now know that attempting to do what you should or have to do, instead of what you want to do, is the fast track to stagnancy or worse. Derp.
Instead, give yourself a choice...a choice between your old way of doing things and a new, more convenient solution to your needs. Make your old routines easier (instead of attempting to learn new, unfamiliar actions). And, by all means, make your choice enjoyable for its own sake (instead of a "hafta"). By maintaining your freedom to choose, you can change your behaviors for the better and eventually turn them into habits.
If this sounds like something you're interested in exploring further, stay tuned for next week when I explore more of the journey of what goes into wellbeing design.
In the meantime, I'm done with being inflammatory (in my bod and on Facebook). But I'll proudly remain my chatty self. Take that, Mrs. Wenzel.
– When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing the new behavior. Psychologists call this “reactance.”
– To change behavior, you must feel in control (a.k.a., wanna > hafta). Attempting to create entirely new behaviors is difficult because these actions often feel like “haftas.” WOMP WOMP.
– Instead, make your behavior easier to do (i.e., simpler and more rewarding). If you focus on your existing routines, then you stand a better chance of changing your behavior as you move to increasingly complex actions and new habits over time.
What behaviors are you looking to simplify or make more rewarding? Share below!