I’ve always believed that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Why? Because my mother told me so. Why did she believe it? Because her mother told her so. Who told her? Probably Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations.”
Is it true that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Well, maybe not. If not, I’ve been self-herding for most of my life. I reached a decision (without much thinking) that breakfast was important. My only evidence was my mother’s advice.
Making the decision may have been a mistake. But, c’mon … she was my Mom. The more egregious mistake is that I never doubled back on the decision to see if anything had changed. I made the decision and never thought about it again. I self-herded into a set of fixed behaviors.
I also suffered from the confirmation bias. Researchers published articles from time to time confirming that breakfast is important. These studies confirmed what I already believed. Since the studies didn’t challenge my mental framework, I didn’t bother to check them closely. I just assumed that they were good science.
As it turns out, those studies were based on observations. Researchers observed people’s behavior and noted that people who ate breakfast were also generally healthier and less likely to be obese compared to people who didn’t. Clearly, breakfast is important.
But let’s think about this critically. There are at least three possible relationships between and among the variables:
With observational studies, researchers can’t easily sort out what causes what.
So James Betts and his colleagues did an experimental study – as opposed to an observational study – on the relationship between breakfast and good health. (The original article is here. The popular press has also covered the story including the New York Times, Time magazine, and Outside magazine).
Betts’ research team randomly assigned people to one of two groups. One group had to eat breakfast every day; the other group was not allowed to do any such thing. This isolates the independent variable and allows us to establish causality.
The trial ran for six weeks. The result: nothing. The researchers found no major health or weight differences between the two groups.
But previous research had found a correlation between breakfast and good health. So what caused what? It was probably a cluster of hidden variables. Betts noted, for instance, “…the breakfast group was much more physically active than the fasting group, with significant differences particularly noted during light-intensity activities during the morning.”
So it may not be breakfast that creates healthier outcomes. It may be that breakfast eaters are also more physically active. Activity promotes wellness, not breakfast.
If that’s true, I’ve been self-herding for many years. I didn’t re-check my sources. If I had, I might have discovered that Edward Bernays launched a PR campaign in the 1920s to encourage people to eat a hearty breakfast, with bacon and eggs. Bernays was working for a client – Beech-Nut Packing Company – that sold pork products, including bacon. I suspect the campaign influenced my grandmother who, in turn, influenced my mother who, in turn, influenced me. The moral of the story: check your sources, re-check them periodically, and be suspicious of observational studies. And don’t believe everything that your mother tells you.
(By the way, I recently published two short articles about the effects of chocolate and sex on cognition. Both of these articles were based on observational studies. Caveat emptor).
The concept of cause-and-effect is very slippery. We think that A causes B only to find that C really causes both A and B. Or, perhaps it’s really B that causes A. More subtly, A might influence B which turns right around and influences A.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’ve been looking at a lot of things from the wrong end of the telescope. Some examples:
Our brain creates us – what creates our personality and the essence of who we are? Why our brains, of course. My brain is the cause; my personality is the effect. Further, the brain is what it is; there’s not much we can do about it. Well…not so fast. Maybe we got it backwards. It turns out that the brain is plastic; we can change it through our habits, actions, and thoughts. In many ways, we create our brains rather than the other way round. Norman Doidge is a leading writer on brain plasticity. You can find his books here and here.
Mutate first; adapt later – our general model of evolution suggests that random mutations happen in our DNA. Mutations that provide a competitive edge are then preserved and passed on. Mutations that aren’t so helpful just fade away. But, according to a recent article in New Scientist, we may have it backwards. Again, plasticity is a key concept. “A growing number of biologists think … plasticity may also play a key role in evolution. Instead of mutating first and adapting later, they argue, animals often adapt first and mutate later.”
I am the master of my fate – I used to believe that I was in control. Now I realize that my System 1 often makes decisions without any input from “me”. Indeed, I don’t even know the decisions are being made. But it’s not just my “primitive brain” that molds my behavior. It’s also how fast my heart beats and how healthy my vagus nerve is. But it’s not even just my body that steers me. It’s also the microbes in my gut. When the microbes team up, they can make me do bizarre things – like eating chocolate. They may even contribute to schizophrenia.
OCD starts with thoughts – we’ve always assumed that irrational thoughts create obsessive compulsive disorder. Irrational thoughts begin in the brain and radiate outward to produce irrational behavior. But, as Clare Gillan points out, we may have it backwards. When she induced new habits in volunteers, she found that people with OCD change their beliefs to explain the new habit. In other words, behavior is the cause and belief is the effect.
The gardener manages the garden – Suellen loves to garden and will spend hours at hard labor under a hot sun. When I see how hard she works, I wonder if she’s managing the flowers or if they’re managing her. It’s not a new thought. The Botany of Desire makes the same point.
What else have we gotten backwards? It’s hard to know. But, as the Heath brothers point out in Decisive, if you believe A causes B, you owe it to yourself to consider the opposite.