Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 21

Extreme Moderation

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everydaysystems.com. Today I'm going to talk about "Extreme moderation." It's an oxymoron. It's not even a particularly original oxymoron. I found over 13000 google hits for the term, in quotes. And yet I think it's a useful oxymoron. It can jolt you into good behavior.

A little while ago I read something in the new york times in defense of political moderation. The author took that famous Barry Goldwater quite, "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" and changed it to "extremism in defense of moderation is no vice." In other -- less eloquent -- words, political moderates should take their moderate stance as seriously as extremists take theirs. Moderates should pursue their moderate aims with extremist enthusiasm. That's sort of what I'm talking about with "extreme moderation," except applied to personal behavior instead of politics, and taking not just the enthusiasm of extremists, but also some of their specific techniques.

Moderation isn't mushy. Or at least, it shouldn't be. It shouldn't be just the absence of taking a stand. And yet for too many self-professed moderates, both political and personal, I'm afraid that's just what it is. The most powerful extremist technique is drawing hard clear lines and exploding when those lines come anywhere close to being crossed. Moderates should be the same way -- except we draw those lines in different places.

Here's an example. Abstinence is a common extreme self help technique: the categorical and complete exclusion of some substance, like alcohol or added sugar. I'd just like to say in passing that there are cases where extremism of this kind makes sense, and I don't want to make people who need to absolutely refrain from alcohol or tobacco or whatever feel inadequate here. On the contrary, I'm looking at why this technique is so powerful and seeing if we can apply aspects of it to more moderate behavior so the rest of us can learn something from your success.

OK, abstinence. On one level it works because there's something chemical going on that you're avoiding, a trigger. But on another level, and this is the level we moderates can emulate, it works simply because it's so damn clear. The line between 0 and 1, between something and nothing, is very unambiguous. There is no slippery slope. It's a line in the sand. You can cross this line, if you decide, but you can't do it by accident or by imperceptible degree. You're on one side or the other. That's powerful. Without clear lines like this, the number of complex decisions you have to make soon becomes overwhelming. In the book mindful eating, the author did a study that showed the average American makes over 200 food related decisions every day -- when to eat, what to eat, how much to eat. Without clear lines in the sand to help you make quick, snap decisions, you might make the first 2 very well because you're taking a million factors into account, but the next 198 will ride right over you because you simply don't have sufficient attention left over to deal with them at all.

But abstinence has costs. You have to completely sacrifice what most people regard as a great pleasure -- what you presumably regard as a great pleasure, or you wouldn't have such a problem with it. It's a cost some people are willing to pay, or willing to try to pay, for the benefit of this powerful and effective clarity. But it's a high cost. Too high for many people. They try it and feel deprived and resentful and long for the forbidden whatever. And when they cross over then from 0 to 1, from nothing to something, because they miss it so much, then suddenly they've lost all all the benefits of abstinence, it becomes a liability, it has nothing further to say to them at this point, they've failed, and they might as well crank it up from 1 to 11, from something to everything, because all failures, big and small, are the same, because 1 = 11 in the system of abstinence. So you might as well max it out, not only do you get more pleasure but you get more drama. People can understand failing for the sake of an 11. It's like going to war for Helen of Troy. Failure for a 1, well, that seems paltry, sort of pathetic. So abstinence demands too much from most people, and when they inevitably fail to meet those demands, it magnifies that failure.

It would be great if we could get the clarity of cold turkey abstinence without the sweeping deprivation. And we can. Very simply. Just draw your clear line in a different, more moderate place. At 2 instead of 0 (like I do with glass ceiling, for the number of glasses of alcolol I'm allowed to drink). Or at "S-days" instead of "never," as I do with the No-s diet and shovelglove. The key is to be just as firm about your number as the abstainer is about his, to be just as clear about what that number is, so there are no last minute revisions, and just as irate when you come anywhere near to crossing it.

Simple doesn't mean easy. It's one thing to say "this is my boundary" and another thing to respect that boundary. The 0 to 1 boundary compels a kind of natural respect. For other, more moderate boundaries, you need something extra, a metaphor, a back story, a mythology, almost. Or a joke, or a bit of poetic consonance. Something that will jump into your mind whenever you approach that boundary and can't immediately be reworked into something else. The letter S for the no s diet. 14 minutes of schedualistically insignificant time for shovelglove. The Song of the urban ranger.

You might object that naturally moderate people do not follow explicit rules, that they are moderate out of instinct or something, or, on the other end of the spectrum, that they simply somehow make rational decisions about stuff that the rest of us can't bring ourselves to be rational about. People in France, for instance, who are held up as exemplars of moderate eating, do not have a written code that makes them eat the way they do. But I would argue that they do have rules, they do have a code, but it's an internal, largely unconscious code of habit. It was instilled in them by custom, by tradition, which is sort of like the habit of a whole society. It might be unconscious, but it is still a rule. It's not like the French are rational Mr. Spocks logically evaluating every culinary decision for maximum long term health benefit. And it's not like they simply "eat when they are hungry" out of some primal instinct. Nothing could be more American than "eat when you are hungry."

It's still rules that govern French eating behavior, rules that are built into the fabric of society itself. If you don't believe this, go to France. Go to a french restaurant or have dinner in a french home. If you're an American, you'll immediately be impressed by the ritual involved. You'll also probably be impressed by a sense of inadequacy at your not getting these rules and rituals, but that's another story.

Those of us who don't live in such a society, -- and from what I understand, such societies aren't what they used to be, there are more McDonald's per capita in Paris than anywhere else in the world, I think, and french women are getting fatter all the time -- those of us who don't live in such a society have no choice but to resort to explicit rules. And if we're smart, we'll make those explicit rules moderate, like the traditional social structures they are standing in for.

I'll close on another quote from the world of politics. Teddy Roosevelt had this great piece of advice, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." That's exactly what we aspiring behavioral moderates should do. Don't insist on much, but insist on it like hell. Not with big flamboyant gestures, but with actions. Oh, and carry a big carrot too.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

Oliver Burkeman wrote a nice piece on Everyday Systems in the Guardian that seems to have been most directly inspired by the ideas in this podcast (let's hope he's wrong about the "Moderation doesn't self-help books" part).

By Reinhard Engels

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