For many people, the show The Biggest Loser is the first glimpse they get into the world of weight loss and body transformation. While it has undoubtedly inspired countless numbers of people to work on getting healthier, it’s doing these same people some major disservices, as well.
One of the major issues is the unrealistic expectations it gives people about what to anticipate in their own weight loss journeys. The concept of anchoring helps explain why The Biggest Loser could be setting you up for failure, rather than success.
Anchoring is a cognitive bias that explains the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered while making decisions. Individuals use that first piece of information, the anchor, to make subsequent judgments. Once it has been set, other information is often interpreted in terms of that anchor.
Say I’m a middle-aged, sedentary woman with a considerable amount of weight to lose. As someone whose weight has been increasing – unintentionally – yet steadily, for the past several years, I have no idea where to even begin making changes, let alone what kind of results to expect in any given time frame. Then I stumble on The Biggest Loser, and can relate closely to the contestants. Like them, I feel overwhelmed by the amount of sweat and tears (but hopefully not blood) it is going to take me to reach a healthy weight. But I’m inspired by their perseverance and think, “if they can do it, so can I.”
Enter the anchoring bias. Since I’ve had no weight loss experience prior to discovering the show, I don’t know what healthy weight loss is. But when I see on the show that women are losing up to 23lbs in a single week and 100lbs in just over 2 months, these become my anchors. Being the rational human being that I am, I assume that there are some differences between myself and the people on the show. I know they are exercising several hours a day, being fed appropriately sized meals, and not dealing with the stresses of their day-to-day lives. As such, I recognize that these are probably not entirely realistic expectations for me, so I adjust from my anchor.
Using the 23 pounds that Patty from Season 3 lost in one week as my anchor, I think maybe half that is doable for me. Losing 10lb in a single week becomes my goal; that’s less than half what I saw someone else do, so it’s got to be realistic.
Let’s also assume that all of my new healthy living efforts go exactly as planned. I’m able to completely revamp my diet overnight and I’ve exercised every single day for an hour. I haven’t had to work late, my kids haven’t come home from school sick, my spouse and friends have been supportive, and everything has been incredibly smooth sailing. I’m feeling great going into my first weigh-in, only to find that I’ve lost a measly 2 pounds! That’s 1/5 of my goal! 20%! I’m the biggest failure anyone has ever seen and I’m destined to live like this forever.
Failure to reach my, basically arbitrary, 10lb weight loss goal isn’t the issue. The issue is having an inaccurate anchor to begin with and not knowing what to actually consider a victory. If I had a more accurate anchor, or information about healthy, sustainable weight loss, I’d surely be ecstatic about losing 2 pounds in a week. If I had more information about the power of habits and efforts required to build new ones, I could have celebrated the fact that I was overcoming years of poor habits and forming new ones that would serve me better for the rest of my life. If I had more information about the difference between behavior-based and outcome-based goal setting, I could have celebrated the victories of completing several days of workouts and healthy eating, and taken comfort in the fact that each small accomplishment is getting me one step closer to my long-term goals.
The point here is not to dissuade you from being inspired by the success of others, nor to vilify reality television, but simply to make you aware of the influences that you may not even recognize as such, and the unrealistic expectations that may accompany them. Think of your journey as a long-term endeavor – one that must be sustainable over years and years. In this way, you’ll learn to focus on what you can do, rather than what you hope will happen & learn to celebrate each small victory as it comes.