Compartmentalizing Our Free Will

Throw out the diet books and stop starving yourself.  Here’s the next big thing in healthy living:

Duct tape.  Yellow duct tape.

That’s what researchers found when they partitioned grocery store shopping carts into sections, one side for fruits and vegetables, one side for other items.  Just a little nudge to make shoppers more conscious of their purchases led them to buy more healthy food and less junk.

The researchers, Brian Wansink, Dilip Soman, Kenneth Herbst, and Collin Payne, didn’t stop there.  By varying the size of the compartments, they discovered that shoppers bought even more fruits and vegetables in proportion to the size of the designated compartment.  With a little manipulation, customers could be prodded into choosing a healthier diet.

Ah, but there’s the rub.  How dare they manipulate us!  Who are they to play with our minds, to force us to conform to their values, and to interfere with our free will?

To which there is only one obvious response:  nonsense!

You can redesign the shopping cart any way you want, but the only way it changes people’s buying patterns is if the people want to change.  As many of us know from experience, it’s a lot harder to change our habits than to decide to change our habits, no matter how much we may really want to change.

When we do succeed, it’s often because we manipulate ourselves.  We buy pricey gym memberships so we’ll feel we’ve wasted our money if we don’t use them.  We hire trainers to push us out of our comfort zones.  Sometimes we buy clothes a size too small so we have to trim down before we can fit into them.

Ultimately, it’s our own free will that motivates us in the first place to manipulate ourselves, or to allowing ourselves to be manipulated.

Which brings us back to yellow duct tape.  The subliminal message of pseudo-police-tape strung across our carts suggests restrictions imposed by a higher authority.  Human nature is such that we conform to societal norms, even if we like to think of ourselves as non-conformists.  We also long for equilibrium, so we want the compartments in our carts to be balanced, even when they aren’t the same size.

Are we being manipulated?  Well, what if we are?  Grocery stores are already manipulating us with the soft music they play to make us linger, through the absence of clocks in the store to help us lose track of time, and by rearranging their shelves every few months to make us look harder for the products on our lists and indulge in impulse-buying.  So why not embrace an effort to manipulate us to do what we want to do anyway?

Moreover, what we react to initially as an infringement on our free actually offers us a powerful tactic in asserting our free will.  Even if we can’t rely on store owners to help us help ourselves, we can make our own mental compartments to rein in our impulses.

Almost everyone has heard the story of the teacher who placed a number of stones in a large glass jar.  “Is the jar full?” the teacher asked.  Everyone in the class agreed that it was.

Then the teacher took a bag of gravel and poured it into the jar.  The gravel filled the empty spaces around the stones.  Again, the class agreed that the jar was full.

The teacher repeated the exercise with a pail of sand, and then again a pitcher of water, after which he explained the lesson:  “If you make room for the big things first, you can always find room for the small things.  And it’s the same way in life.  If we first make room for our family and our community, we can still find room for our careers, and then for our pastimes, and then for our possessions.  But if we fill up our lives with the little things first, we’ll never be able to fit in the things that really matter.

Free will means taking responsibility for everything we do, which means not allowing our impulses to control our actions or others to dictate our priorities.  And as we find ourselves living increasingly in a marketing culture, we have to create our own mental compartments to remind ourselves not to buy everything that society is trying to sell.

Of course, the system isn’t foolproof.  The researchers also found that if we shop when we’re hungry, we go right back to our old bad habits.  Which offers more evidence that good choices depend on clear thinking, and that we can’t manipulate our way out of bad behavior except through persistent self-discipline.

Selfishness and self-indulgence are our constant enemies, always pulling us this way and that way, rooted so deeply inside us that we can never escape them.  But with a little determined ingenuity we can turn them against themselves and, by transforming them from negative into positive energy, free ourselves to become the people we are meant to be.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures.   Request the first four chapters of his new book Proverbial Beauty:  Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages at this link for free or order now on Amazon.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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