93 genius ideas from the lab to improve your life

Author Garth Sundem asks research scientists for their secrets

93 genius ideas to improve your life

iStock; Getty; Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

If you want to stop gorging on candy and potato chips, try this experiment: imagine yourself eating the food you crave and you’ll eat less. In the case of 35-year-old Garth Sundem, he tried it with cranberry sauce. “But imagine eating M&M’s and keep imagining it. Eat half a bag in your mind, and when you see the real M&M’s, it’s as if you’ve already eaten them,” he writes in Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Reveal Lab-Tested Secrets to Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants, and More!

Carey Morewedge, a professor of decision science at Carnegie Mellon University, found test subjects who moved M&M’s from one bowl to another became sensitized, “primed and ready to munch.” The subjects who touched the candy ate more than those who didn’t. But when Morewedge asked subjects to imagine eating the candy, they ate less.

“You can inoculate yourself to gorging on it in real life,” writes Sundem, a Cornell grad who interviewed Nobel Prize winners and recipients of the so-called “genius grants,” otherwise known as MacArthur fellows. “It’s not a phantom feeling of fullness that keeps you from overindulging; imagining eating a food habituates you to it. One piece of cake is great, two is good, three is okay, but four is bad. And imagining you’ve already had a couple slices means that when you actually start eating, you’re further into the downward trajectory of enjoyment.”

In another diet experiment, psychobiologist Mark Wilson at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta fed sweetened banana-flavoured pellets to rhesus monkeys. “All the monkeys liked the banana pellets,” Sundem writes. “But check this out: monkeys at the top of the social hierarchy regulated pellets to keep their caloric intake roughly similar to that of their standard diet. Subordinate monkeys did not. They binged.”

Wilson found the dominant monkeys snacked on pellets during the day but subordinate monkeys stayed up late “stuffing their faces with the sugary goodness.” Wilson’s conclusion: dominant monkeys get their dopamine fix from the hierarchy of the social interactions while subordinate monkeys get none. “They eat to feel good.” The trick to losing weight, adds Sundem, is to try to find comfort another way without food.

At the London Business School, Sundem spoke with a professor of organizational behaviour, Niro Sivanathan, who studied why people overspend on luxury items they can’t afford. Sivanathan gathered 150 subjects and made them feel bad about themselves. “I think he used this protocol where you give people a pattern, and have them predict the next shape, then you either allow them to be right or allow them to be wrong,” explained Sundem from his home in Boulder, Colo. “In fact, there is no pattern, but you can make people feel like they’re successful or unsuccessful with this task.”

Sivanathan discovered that subjects whose self-worth had been beaten down would pay more for luxury cars and watches than those who retained their self-worth. “Don’t shop when you feel crappy about yourself,” the author advises. “You’ll overspend.”

At the University of California in San Diego, Sundem asked economist Eli Berman how to create a “cult-like posse of worshipful automatons.” Berman is well-known for his study on what makes terrorist groups like al-Qaeda successful while others like the Toronto 18 fail.

According to Berman, successful terrorist organizations require a “signal of commitment.” Sundem cites the Hells Angels’ initiation rite, where gang members pee on initiates, who have to wear their stained leather jacket for a month. “Once you’ve spent the month wearing the urine of large, hairy men, the cost you’ve paid to enter the club is higher than any potential gain you could earn by later defecting from it.”

Sundem explains what this means for your posse. “First, make yourself indispensable in a benign way, creating an exclusive club with membership benefits. Then require a stout initiation rite. Only then will you have snitch-proof henchmen capable of carrying out your super-villianry.”

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