Chip Heath and Gretchen Rubin

What a day!

I recently finished collaborating with Chip Heath, coauthor of Switch and Made to Stick. Next year is Hilton’s centennial, and Chip and I just spent several months researching the company to write The Hilton Effect together. It was exciting to learn so much about its history and impact on the hospitality industry.

Why has the brand been so successful? Social psychology came to the rescue with a compelling explanation. Travel is infinitely beneficial: it expands our worldview and self-efficacy, increases our cognitive flexibility, and can make us happier by giving us more memories and peak moments. But it’s also tiring. It’s exhausting having to constantly figure out what to do, which is why having extra comforts in your hotel room is so key.



I was also interviewed for Gretchen Rubin’s excellent website! We share a favored quote:

“One coin won’t make you rich, but the only way to get rich is by collecting coins.”

How to Make Smarter Decisions About What You Eat

Forming opinions about things is a process of noticing good/bad information until we’ve crossed a magical “I have decided what I think about this thing!” threshold. When you’re selecting between two different kinds of food—a salad or a brownie—how do you decide what to eat?
Your choices depend on the marbles you pick up, information you notice, or which criteria you pay attention to. Over time, information supporting one side starts to outweigh information for the other side, which is supported by your intuition/gut/emotional response. (Newsflash: your intuition is not always smart.)
Two different criteria we might use to decide what to eat, for example, are nutrition and taste. Information that’s processed faster gets added to the scale faster, meaning that it’s easy to consider taste over everything else (especially very noticeable or salient information, like sugar, fat, and salt, that used to be more important for survival, but now lead us towards obesity).
People who focus their attention on the health value of food would look at the salad and brownie, and think about these items in terms of nutrition. Bing! They’d choose the salad.
People who change their habits and make smarter dietary choices shift their values by emphasizing nutrition, viewing healthier food as more rewarding. Over the long run, people who process health-related information about food more quickly are better able to control their weight. Focusing your attention is a key element of self-control. The way we control our own behavior and choices is really just a stand-in for our values: what do we value more in the moment?
How can we make smarter choices about food?
  • People who can’t improve their eating habits tend to get stuck, and continue to view “healthy” food as “less tasty.”
  • Develop faster positive associations about nutritious food: healthy food can be delicious. (The Man Who Ate Everything is a great book if you want to get over food phobias.)
  • Looking at or being exposed to something gives us more opportunities to think of all of its positive qualities, making us more likely to choose it. The closer something is to us, the more tempted we are. If you want to limit how much of something you eat, don’t buy it. Don’t go to a restaurant where it’s served. Stay away.
  • Spend time with people who make smarter choices.
  • Make smart choices in advance: prepare your meals.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that healthy food doesn’t taste good.
  • The more you prioritize nutrition, the easier that decision becomes. Studies (like this one) show links between BMI and what people value when they look at food.

How do we develop attitudes? The Scale: My favorite model explaining how we process information

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.” – George Box

One of my favorite models explaining how we make decisions, evaluate things, and process information is the scale. When we have no opinion about something, the scale is empty, like so:








Learning about something is a process of collecting evidence. Each piece of information we get about something is like a marble: negative information goes on one side, and positive information goes on the other side. If we see a pile of free money, it’d be all positive information:


If we saw a quarter on the floor, that would be a piece of positive information, but not quite as positive, so you’d get a slight tilt:


The kind of information we learn changes the size of the marble that we put on the scale. One big piece of information can make it tip over right away.

“You’re collecting evidence for one option or another,” says Brown University’s Amitai Shenhav. “Marbles are collecting, more marbles are collecting, the more marbles come to mind, and the size of those marbles scales with the value of those attributes.”

When the scale is clearly leaning to one side, and we’ve accumulated enough information to come to a decision about what to do, or whether or not we like something. We’ve crossed the threshold needed to come to a conclusion:

When do we spend more time collecting information?

  • If the decision is complex
  • If we’re  cautious or risk averse
  • If the cost of changing our mind or backing out are high
  • If we get lots of conflicting information, and the scale tips back and forth

When the scale is already leaning over in one direction, we’ve started accumulating information that favors that thing. A leaning scale means that we’ve already started building up an implicit association, an evaluation that’s so subtle, we may not even realize it.


When the scale starts leaning to one side, information supporting that side becomes easier to process. We begin selectively collecting certain marbles—and pieces of evidence—that back up the side that’s already leaning over. This information is simply easier for us to process. It’s more fluent. It confirms and is consistent with our beliefs.

“Our judgment is strongly influenced, unconsciously, by which side we want to win — and this is ubiquitous.”

When people already have an unconscious belief—even if they don’t realize it—they selectively expose themselves to information or news that confirms their beliefs—giving them more ammunition to present those hunches as fact.

The more we’re exposed to certain kinds of information, the more practice we get processing that information; information that we process faster “feels” right. It’s what we’re used to. How easily we can process or understand information makes it easy for us to mistake it for the truth.

Our implicit beliefs are the things that we believe deep in our core, even when we don’t realize it; the famous Implicit Association Test is merely a test of how quickly we connect ideas, like “white/black/our ingroup” and “good.”

Information that is inline with our pre-existing beliefs becomes easier to process, so we begin actively seeking it out, and ignoring contradictory information. In other words, certain marbles are always easier for us to pick up. If we actively dislike “the Army/feminists/vanilla,” the second we see anything that reminds us of this information, we disregard it.

One key to overcoming your decision-making biases is to have a scout mindset rather than a soldier mindset (explained in this video): seek to learn, not to defend.

Viewing the opposing viewpoint in very simplistic terms is a good sign that someone hasn’t really examined it.

For example, people who hear entire terms and roll their eyes are probably much less informed about that entire field than they realize. I used to roll my eyes at “women’s studies,” “gender studies,” and anything related to weightlifting. Immediate emotional reactions are merely signs of someone’s bias.

Since our judgment and what information we bother taking into account is strongly influenced by which side we want to win, one way to discover a bias might be to ask yourself: what would you lose if the other side were right?

How to build a better future

It appears that in one of the final round of edits, I deleted my favorite bullet point from the book, in the chapter on self-control. I’ll put it in the paperback version, but in the meantime:

Compared to people who stick with the salad, those who repeatedly eat the brownies severely undervalue their future self in the skinny jeans. Compared to people who keep hammering away studying an idea that they don’t understand, people who get distracted and start playing a game on their phone are underestimating how good it would feel to finally understand that concept.

Every smart decision you make adds value to your future self. Books are read and written one page at a time, all pounds are lost one healthy decision at a time, all relationships are strengthened one kind deed at a time, all savings accounts are padded one dollar at a time, and all marathons are finished one step at a time. Every extra minute of reading, writing, brownie-skipping, gym-hitting, hugging, thanking, saving, and stepping adds up over time.

Why I Wrote the Book

In the interest of transparency, and because I think it’s important to be honest about these kinds of things:

Depression is a bitch. Life is hard. You never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.

You are not alone.

Ready to get lucky?

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.

Mark Twain

® 2012-2018 Karla Starr | All rights reserved | Privacy Policy

Can You Learn to be Lucky: Why Some People Seem to Win More Often Than Others by Karla Starr

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