Day 36--Why Your Environmental Cues Matter So Much: An Overview

Welcome to Day 36!






One of the most important, but overlooked, aspects of long term health and weight loss success is your environment. It can make success easy or hard. People who win at health and weight loss “stack the deck” by hacking their environments first--so that the healthy choice is the lazy choice.

Unfortunately, people underestimate their environment’s importance because it’s hard to see its role. It’s mostly in the Assistant’s subconscious realm. 

Cues Matter

But, Marketers sure know the importance of advertising and subconscious cues. It’s why there are small ads all over blogs or websites. You don’t even have to look at the ads directly for your Assistant to be influenced by them. 

It’s why there’s an uproar about advertising on children’s TV programming. One study found that elementary-school-aged children that watched a cartoon show that had food commercials ate 45% more snacks than kids who watched a cartoon without food advertising--irregardless of how hungry the kids were before the show.

Another study showed the same result in adults who watched TV with food commercials vs. TV with non-food commercials.  The adults who saw the food commercials ate more food--healthy and unhealthy--than did adults who watched TV without food ads. 

Research About Cues

Scientists have been setting up  fascinating research to explore how people are affected by their Assistant’s reactions to cues.

One experiment flashed images of people smiling or frowning in front of people. It was so fast that the Boss part of their brain didn’t register these images. 

Then people were asked to taste an energy drink and rate it. 

 The people who were exposed to the frowny face drank less and rated the drink lower. The people who “saw” the smiling person rated the energy drink tastier and drank more. These people had no idea that the millisecond exposure to a frowning or smiling face had affected their choice. (subliminal visual cue)

One study showed that people order more food at restaurants when their waitstaff is overweight. (normalcy cue)

Another showed that when administrative assistants were given chocolate kisses as an appreciation gift, they ate 71% more if the dish was clear versus opaque.  Over a year, that could have added up to an additional 5 pounds of weight gain. (Visual cue)

Another study showed that if the ice cream freezer lid was open in a cafeteria, 30% people bought an ice cream. If it was closed, only 14% bought an ice cream.  (convenience matters)

Research shows that you can be influenced to eat by the tempo of the background music, by the smell in the air, by the color of wall paint, by the wording on a menu, what others around you order, the appearance of the waitstaff, how close you are to treats, distractions, information overload, stress etc. 

Cues Play a Bigger Role than Rational Choice

Now here’s the scary part. More often than not, all those factors play a more important role in your decision making than rational choice.

Your Assistant is fast. She can make evaluations, judgments, and decisions instantaneously. But, your Boss isn’t aware that the Assistant had any part in those decisions.

Boss Makes up Explanations

When your Assistant makes you do something, your Boss will come up with a rational explanation for it--even though it isn’t true. So, the Boss part of your brain pretends that she, the Boss, made those decisions on purpose.  

If you asked people if they bought the ice cream because the freezer door was open, 100% of them would say no. They were just “hungry for ice cream.”  

You would never say you bought more food because your waiter was overweight. But, the Assistant saw that cue and oriented you toward eating more unhealthy food. 

Why Do Cues Make You Eat More?

So why do environmental cues make you hungry and eat more? 

It turns out that just thinking of food makes you hungry. You actually salivate when you hear, see, or smell something related to food. 

Even though you haven’t eaten anything, your pancreas releases insulin, which in turn drops your blood sugar. Making you hungry. 

Also, those same food related cues cause dopamine to be released in your brain. Dopamine causes cravings and then motivates you to do something about it. And, all of this is in the Assistant’s subconscious realm. 

So, images and reminders of food in your environment cause a desire to eat as well as physical feelings of hunger (low blood sugar). 

Because food is available everywhere, and food advertising is everywhere nowadays, people are feeling artificially hungrier and overeating more. Making it harder for people to keep the pounds off. 

But, don’t despair. Once the Assistant is stimulated to want food, you can still stop her from eating. And it turns out that if you’re aware that the reminder to eat is artificial, it’s easier to stop. 

Get Better With Practice

As you work on your Assistant’s retraining program, you’ll get better and better at seeing how your environment affects your subconscious.  You may even catch your Assistant falling prey to your environmental cues.  


For instance, the other day I was making dinner. It had been about six hours between meals, so I was really hungry. 

All of a sudden, I had an urge to go get a handful of cashews out of the cupboard. I was chopping some vegetables, went and put the veggies on the stove, and came back to my cutting board. And, then I caught the Assistant red-handed.  

On the counter next to the cutting board was a flyer from my local grocery store for the latest weekly deals. In the corner there was a picture of cashews.  It was a very subtle thing.  

But, the Assistant who is scanning the neighborhood is always on the lookout, and she sees stuff that the Boss doesn’t. And, she influences the Boss to do stuff without her even knowing it.  

If I hadn’t caught her red-handed, I may have gotten a handful of nuts and not even have thought twice about it.  In the whole scheme of things, a handful of nuts isn’t going to make or break the scale-- and overall nuts are a healthy choice. 

But, the thing was, it wasn’t a choice. The Boss part of my brain wasn’t deciding, “I’m hungry. I should have a snack. Cashews in the cupboard would be good.”  

No, this was a fleeting idea on the edge of my consciousness that I almost acted on without any conscious thought.  Happening once or twice it’s not a big thing, but several times a day, every day that’s our health ruined and and an extra 20 pounds. 

It was fascinating (and a bit scary) to catch my Assistant trying to get me to eat because of a small graphic in a supermarket flyer that I wasn’t even looking at. 

Hack the Environment to Control Your Assistant

Fortunately, you don’t have to be aware of all your cues at all times to be master over them. You can use simple hacks to help change your environment and influence your eating for good. 

There are whole books are written on how your subconscious is influenced to eat and hacks to out smart the Assistant.  Brian Wansink has two books that I strongly recommend--Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think And Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.  I also love How We Eat with our Eyes and Think with our Stomach: The Hidden Influences that Shape your Eating Habits by Melanie Muhl and Diana Von Kopp.

The idea of these books are that we will eat mindlessly (aka the Assistant) whether we want to or not. That’s because the Assistant is going to be influenced by a ton of things in your environment.  Like the name of a food, how expensive it is, how much you are served, how heavy the plate is, what color the plate is, what the first person in your group orders, and how big the serving spoons are, etc.  

For a cheatsheet of dozens of hacks that you can use, check out the download at the end of the post.

Play Offense and Defense

Your first line of defense and offense to getting healthy and losing weight should be cleaning up your environment, so that your Assistant is less likely to hear the siren song of tempting foods. 

The way to have a good defense is to get rid of all the things that will trip you up--clean out the cupboards, take another route home away from fast food, only buy foods on your shopping list, skip TV commercials with your DVR, etc.

But then you’ll also want to have a great offense--make the good choices easier (or make the healthy choice the lazy choice) like having a vegetable tray in the fridge, a fruit bowl on the counter, or emergency back up meals in the freezer. 

The best you can hope for in a Basketball game that’s all defense is a tie 0-0. But, put some good offense in there, as well as defense, and you’re going to win every time. Same in the battle for health and weight management.

So tomorrow, we’re going to talk about How to Change the Environment, so that you make more good choices and less bad ones.

Mission Freedom!

Download the Cheatsheet Here: