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Monday, January 25, 2010

Proximity bias - why leading by example doesn't work

One of the most common pieces of advice handed out to unhappy fit spouses is to "lead by example", I've probably dished it out myself more times than I can remember. And yet, as most of you probably know all too well already, it rarely works. If it's any consolation, there's a scientific term for it, "proximity bias", meaning in plain language that people don't respect your knowledge and take your advice if they know you intimately.

Chris Shugart (yes, yes, I know, I keep quoting him, but it's because I usually like what he has to say) wrote an article on it, you can read it below.

However, in this context I can't resist relating my own experiences with proximity bias. In a nutshell, I'm very lean and fit but my husband of 20+ years is borderline obese. He'd like to lose weight and get in better shape but can't seem to find the right way to go about it. I keep trying to tell him what to do, but somehow to him I'm just lil' ol' me, and he seems to think I am what I am today because of genetics and my personality, not because I actually might have a fair amount of knowledge and personal experience as to how to lose fat permanently and get and stay in shape. Still, he has seen me go through a period when I was getting both fat, sedentary and unhealthy, but I managed to make a lasting lifestyle change almost two decades ago. Sure, I don't have any official credentials and can't call myself an expert and I've never worked as a personal trainer and I don't consider myself an athlete. To me what I do is just my normal way of life, nothing noteworthy or exceptional.

On the other hand, I often have new acquaintances inquire about what kind of sport I do, one fellow who is a plastic surgeon noted that I must be extremely active as it shows in the way I look and how I move. At the age of 44 I had a hysterectomy and at the pre-op medical check my doc stated "ah, so you must be an athlete". When I woke up post-op there was some sort of beep-alarm going off and a lot of commotion in the room, but the nurse at my bedside called out "don't worry, she's an athlete, her pulse is supposed to be very low". I recently joined a new gym, and at my introduction session the PT said, as we shook hands and introduced ourselves, "so you've obviously exercised a lot before". Later on one day the owner came up to me and stated that "you've obviously been exercising for several years, what kind of stuff have you done - I can see that you like working hard" and then went on to show me how to do squats, bench presses and assisted pullups, no extra charge (I'm a newbie at free weights). And so on and so forth, so I guess I know a thing or two that could come in useful for my hubby. And yet, he's not very interested in my "expertise". But lo and behold, this winter one of his buddies he hadn't seen for six months had lost a lot of weight and appeared much healthier than before. Hubs asked him what he'd done, and it turned out that he had followed the Michel Montignac-principles for half a year and was, of course, very enthusiastic. Montignac is a French chap who's written a diet-book that is basically new-school Atkins with a few twists. His conclusions are mostly bull***t, but there's plenty of lean proteins and enough fruit and veg to keep you healthy, so provided you control the amount you eat you certainly can and will lose weight on it.

My initial reaction was to tell hubs that there really is nothing that special about this particular diet, and in fact the science of it is completely flawed, but his response was "what do you know and look at this guy (his buddy), he's a walking testimony that it must work big time". - Okay, so I did the sensible thing and swallowed my pride and have been cooking "a la Montignac" for a couple of months now. Sure, hubby has actually lost some weight, although the process is very slow as he doesn't exercise that much and still tries to cheat whenever I turn my back. Good thing is he's found something he actually believes in and at least really tries to stick with. My "you shouldn't really eat that" never hit home, but a "that is not allowed on Montignac" is surprisingly effective! So whatever floats your boat and so on... and understanding "proximity bias" helps me deal with the fact that my knowledge and expertise is worth less than that of a populistic Frenchman and a guy who very recently managed to lose part of his excess weight....

Anyways, here's the article I was talking about

Proximity Bias: A Discussion

Alan is a walking sculpture: ripped, muscular, athletic. The guy knows his way around the gym, no doubt. His wife? Out of shape, borderline obese.

The other day Alan tells me that she just charged yet another build-your-dream-body-in- 8-minutes-a-day cardio gadget. He tries to offer her advice and teach her about weight training but she doesn't listen. He's just her husband of 17 years, not a "real" fitness expert like the guy on the infomercial.

Sandy is a sought-after trainer that's been featured in a couple of women's fitness magazines. In spite of hypoglycemia and a family history of weight problems, Sandy is shredded, with visible abs and the kind of definition most guys would kill for. That gal knows her stuff about diet and nutrition and has helped hundreds of her clients drop fat and reshape their bodies.

Sandy's mother? Just joined Weight Watchers, became a lifetime member in fact. She could get free personalized training and fitness advice from Sandy, a service other women pay through the nose for, but she doesn't do it. Sandy is just her daughter after all, not one of those "real" diet experts like at Weight Watchers.

Chris is a writer and editor for the Internet's top fitness and bodybuilding site, He works for Biotest, the leader in quality, cutting edge supplementation. In spite of this, Chris's female friends and family members still buy the latest garbage fat loss supplements they see on TV (which consist of nothing but 49 cents worth of diuretics and caffeine and cost 50 bucks.)

Then, after they buy this junk, they ask him if it's any good. When he tells them it sucks and suggests something better, they talk about how great it worked for Anna Nicole Smith and ignore his advice. . . then Chris has to chloroform them, hack them into tiny little pieces in the basement, and move to a different state. . . again.

Yep, we've all experienced it: our friends and loved ones will listen to anyone when it comes to training, diet, and supplementation -- except us. It's true for you and it's even true for those of us in the biz. There's even a name for this phenomenon, popularized by Dr. John Berardi:

Proximity bias: The tendency to discount information that's presented by a source who's familiar to us.

For whatever reason, human beings are apt to listen to information from outside sources rather than sources inside their family or immediate acquaintances. This means that if you tell your fat aunt that morning carbs are unlikely to be stored as fat, you'll be dismissed as a bloomin' idiot who has taken the name of Atkins in vain. . . in spite of the fact that you're lean and healthy and she's fat and miserable.

But if said fat aunt hears the exact same bit of advice proffered by Richard Simmons on TV, well, it becomes the word of God and an undisputed nutritional fact.

Weird, isn't it?

The question is, what can we do about it? One suggestion is to make your case and let your actions and results speak for themselves. Maybe, possibly, eventually, your friends and family will realize that you just might be onto something.

The problem is, it hardly ever happens.

Nope, your fat aunt or ectomorphic brother or unhealthy spouse will usually stick to their guns. I can't tell you how many times fat women (who have been fat for 20 fucking years) will tell me how great Weight Watchers is. . . or Jenny Craig or LipoSuck Extreme or the Gazelle.

Me: "So, Weight Watchers really works, huh?"

Fat Broad: "Oh yes, I've been going to meetings for ten years!"

Me: "But, um, you're still fat. In fact, you get a little fatter every year. You're always on a diet yet you're getting fatter and fatter and more and more unhealthy. Hey, I've been fat, I lost it and have kept it off. I learned a lot along the way. Wanna try it my way?"

Fat Broad: "Sure, you've achieved the same goals I'm after, and you've helped hundreds, maybe thousands, of others do the same thing through your articles, but Chris, you're my nephew, so what can you possibly know? I've changed your diaper after all."

Okay, that's not exactly how these conversations go, but that's the underlying gist.

So, leading by example usually won't cut through the familial blinders. What will? Is there any point in trying to battle the beast of proximity bias? If so, how?

My friend Sandy, the trainer mentioned above, says this:

"The key is knowing that you did all you could. You were there for them and offered them the information. It's like a relay race. Your job is to hand them the baton. It's their job to grab it and run with it. If they drop the baton or choose not to run, it's not your fault! So try not to get frustrated or take the 'rejection' personal. Leave the door open -- they know you have the information they need, and when they're ready to listen to you (if ever), they'll come back."

Not bad advice. I think the "pain" of proximity bias is amplified by the closeness of our relationship to the person rejecting or ignoring our advice. If the chubby chick at work smirks at your advice to go easy on the cardio and lift weights instead, it doesn't bother us as much. But if it's our spouse or mother? Much tougher situation.

Click here to read more!

posted by Mary45 on the My Fat Spouse Forum


  1. Well another look at this may be the way the advice is being handled. I know in my own family here is what you would hear. "He is always so patient and gentle with those other people, but he expects us to know better." It took years to realize that advice comes in many formats. Sometimes "experts" can come off condescending to those they love the most. After all didn't they just learn by their "perfect" example.

    When I started my weight loss journey. I started it for myself. I am a firm believer now that you can only live and love your best. People either get it and get excited to join you on the journey or they stay in their own crap pile and wallow in it till the cows come home. When I stopped trying to make some one change and just loved them the way they where, things started changing around me.

    Saying I feel great 100 lbs lighter to people outside my family still puts out a message that says you could too. But going to my wife and saying "When are going to get busy and loose that weight?" sounds a whole lot different. I called it creating the pull.

    Be aware to get good at creating the pull, there needs to be the ability to do unconditional love. For if there are conditions attached it comes through said or unsaid. Your family knows how to complete your sentences, surely they know your hidden or open resentments. I don't brag or compare I just feel great and live happy! It has it's own pull without trying to change someone that I can't make their choices for them anyways.

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