The Couch Potato Zone

Sometimes cutting-edge research in psychology just proves what was already folk wisdom. And that is most definitely the case when it comes to what psychologists call “projection bias.” Projection bias is best explained by the old saying: “never go to the supermarket hungry.” The way psychologists describe it, people project their current feelings onto their future selves, so if they are hungry at the supermarket, they buy more food than they would if they were full. Their growling stomachs push them to stack package after package of frozen dinners into their cart. Deep inside, a little assumption forms: in the future, I will be just as hungry as I am right now.

And projection bias really seems to matter. Americans flipping through clothing catalogs buy more cold-weather clothing when it happens to be especially cold. Intellectually, we all know that a cold-spell is temporary, but it still influences our shopping.

So, OK, let’s not go to the supermarket hungry. And let’s be careful buying clothes on especially cold days. But what if projection bias is more pernicious than just that? What if it keeps us from working out, keeps us in bed, keeps us glued to our smartphones, keeps us from reading good books? What if projection bias keeps us from being the people we want to be?

Consider a couch potato pondering whether he ought to go for a run. Once he’s running, and the endorphins are pumping, running feels terrific. But sitting on the couch, lumpen and deflated, a run is entirely unappealing. In a sense, he faces a projection-bias problem. Running feels great once he’s actually doing it, but when he’s lying on a couch, stuck in the couch-potato zone, the prospect seems exhausting. And so, he stays on the couch.

The same might be true of working. Once he’s in a state of flow, pounding away at a laptop, working feels good. But getting to that place is difficult, especially difficult if he starts on the couch, glancing at his closed laptop, at a bag of chips, then back at the laptop.

The solution, is first of all, to pre-commit. If he were to have scheduled a run with a friend or if he has a deadline that just absolutely requires the work to get done, well then it’s no longer even a decision. Goodbye couch.

Second, simple awareness of the problem can help. Realize that you’re buying too much food because your eyes are bigger than your stomach. And so drop those frozen dinners off before you hit the cashier. Stick to the shopping list, a list you put together while full.

But there’s another solution, too: take a baby step. Instead of sitting on the couch contemplating the run, sit on the couch and contemplate lacing up some running shoes and doing a few jumping jacks. That first step seems at least a bit more palatable, even if you’re firmly ensconced in the couch-potato zone. And then once the shoes are on and the blood is flowing, the run might just be in reach.

The same might be true of working. Instead of jumping up and seizing the day’s most-important task, what about starting with something simple? How about editing a little blog post, just to get geared up for the real work ahead? (This entire blog was written in five-minute bursts as a warmup to my real work.)

Perhaps the psychologists who study projection bias would argue that I’m abusing the term. I may be stretching the notion of what counts as projection bias. I’m arguing that the concept is even more central to our lives than it might first appear: it’s not just about going to the supermarket. Making the decision to start exercising or start working or, really, start anything—that decision is fraught when we can’t help but assume that in five minutes we’ll be feeling the way we are right now.