Making Decisions & Avoiding Sweets – What is the “Cathy” Effect?

When I was a teenager I stumbled onto a method for making better decisions about food. I was terrified of getting acne and in those times, sweets were thought to cause acne. My strategy focused on how to stay away from the pies and cakes that daily tempted me in the school cafeteria lunch line.

I decided to tell myself I didn’t want anything sweet – they were TOO sweet and would taste bad. I succeed in convincing myself, and stayed away from sweets.  Years later the connection between sugar and acne was debunked and my deprivation was for nothing! (PA)

In the cartoon strip “Cathy”, by Cathy Guisewite,  her struggle dieting and avoiding eating high caloric treats was an ongoing focus:

Cathy would decide NOT to eat sweets.  Despite promising to herself she would not eat the treat, she gave in whenever the treats were in sight, she ate them.  

Dr. David A Redish calls this “The Cathy Effect” in his book about how our brains make decisions:  “The Mind Within The Brain”.   

Basically, our brain is always determining what is more valuable and what is less valuable. When not tempted, sweets are less valuable and Kathy’s diet is more valuable.  But when the sweet is available, it’s value becomes heightened . . . and she eats the treat.  Sound familiar?

How do we avoid the Cathy Effect?

1. Have an alternate reward which is immediately available or at least soon.  Our brains like immediate gratification and devalue abstract, hypothetical, future rewards.

2. Make a pre-commitment:  Set up a situation so in the future the choice has already been made.

Cathy knew her brain gave huge value to the taste, smell and look of sweets. Cathy could have avoided the bakery aisle or decide, like I did, that a clear complexion was more valuable than that tasty treat.  Reddish says that this ability to pre commit to one decision over another is a very strong tool to use in decision making.  Who knew I was as smart as I was when a teen-ager!