A fitness club for fruit flies: The default heuristic
This is the fruit fly equivalent of using the default heuristic for discipline and fitness. A day is equivalent to a human year in the lives of these tiny creatures, so they are good models for studying long-term outcomes. In this study, reported by University of Michigan psychologist Christopher Peterson, fruit flies were kept in test tubes, where they were forced to climb–repeatedly. They had no choice really, so they kept at it–the equivalent of regular exercise over years and years. The result: much more vigorous fruit flies. That in itself is not shocking, but it points to the importance of finding a situation–a default setting–where exercise is necessary, or at least encouraged. I write about this strategy in On Second Thought, excerpted here:
“Think about exercise. I exercise every day, and I have for some time. But it wasn’t an easy habit to establish in the beginning. Like a lot of well-intentioned people, I had made New Year’s resolutions to go to the gym five times a week, or three times, but I always lasted for a few weeks, then failed. Then I listened to Woody Allen.
Woody Allen famously said that 80 percent of the business of life is just showing up. It’s a throwaway line, but it shows keen psychological insight and goes directly to the heart of default thinking. After many failed attempts at fitness, I made a vow to go to the gym every day. Just “show up”—no more. I found a gym that was reasonably convenient, so that wasn’t a deterrent, then starting putting on my sweats every morning and showing up. If I exercised, great, but if I didn’t, that was okay too. I would at least make an appearance.
And you know what? I never once showed up without doing something, even if it was just hopping on the Stairmaster for twenty minutes. And it was almost always more, just because I was there, and why not? I was already sweaty. What I had done, without even realizing it at the time, was change my brain’s default position. I had written a policy for myself, a policy that let my deliberating brain stay home while my automatic brain took over.
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