"You want me to enforce your diet?" Their guest scratched his beard.
"We feel it's worth a try."
The three men and two women sat around their dining room table. It was where they held group meetings in their tenement, which lay on the border of the university. In the dining room, they planned their menus in advance, transcribed their meal plans onto the group calendar, and arranged for purchases of food.
The five of them bought nearly all of their groceries from the local farmer's cooperative. Their guest headed the purchasing program. He pooled money from a row of similar tenements and bought supplies at volume discounts to keep everyone's costs low. Since he controlled so much of their edible provisions, the housemates felt it made sense to ask him to help with their diet.
"I've been studying cognitive science," said one of the women. "There are all sort of methods to help us with self-regulation. But as individuals, we haven't been able to put them into effect. For instance, each of us has foods we like too much and need to avoid. But other members of the house like them too, so they buy them. Then those foods lie around the house as temptations."
"So you're buying snacks," said the purchaser. "And that's why you're gaining weight."
"Let's make a list of them, then. I agree not to allow those in your house."
The purchaser left with his determination to help and a list in his hand of the forbidden foods. The house meeting continued. The oldest housemate, a graduate student in sociology, tried to get his partners to support one another. He felt that they could help most by shaming cheaters.
"We need quick, negative feedback," he said.
"And positive feedback," said the psychologist.
"We need reward substitution," said the cognitive scientist.
The youngest woman, who was studying physical therapy and yoga, said nothing. The discussion ended with each house member resolved to try a different strategy.
Although the list of forbidden foods started small, within a week the housemates discovered the need to expand it. The house was devoid of their favorite vices but they found other high-calorie items to snack on.
A week after that, they added more to their list to avoid. But the more the purchaser limited their diet, the more they ate outside of their home. One of them started to wolf down fast food to satisfy his cravings. Others pretended to go for walks so they could stop at the local convenience store. The cognitive scientist visited her friends' houses in the neighborhood and ate their snacks. The sociologist hid packets of cookies in his room. The youngest woman increased her exercise and meditation but the others, generally, did not.
The food purchaser doubled his efforts to enforce the diet. The housemates grew resentful toward him and toward one another. Finally, the purchaser himself called the house and begged them to hold another meeting.
"This isn't working," he announced when they met. "You guys are eating less from the farmer's co-op. But you're clearly not losing weight."
"We're gaining a bit, as a household."
"This is like the drug war, man," he said. "And I'm the cops. It sucks. Now you guys see me on the street and avoid me."
"We should have known this wouldn't succeed," said the sociologist.
"Why? It should have worked," said the psychologist.
"We tried to ban sweets. But we've all seen how well that's worked with alcohol, marijuana, and other things in our culture."
"We're not part of that."
"I think we are. Being part of a culture doesn't mean agreeing with everything in it." He spread his arms wide as if to encompass the whole room. "Look, the fact that we tried a ban means we took the idea from our culture. But if a rule isn't backed up with a sense of morality that's universally held in the culture, then people feel no shame about circumventing the rule."
They fell into a long discussion, each with a view on their weight gains based on their backgrounds in sociology, psychology, cognitive science, physical therapy, and religious studies.
"All of the tactics we talked about are good ones," said the physical therapist. "But they need to come from our own self-restraint, not imposed from outside. Choosing an authoritarian approach is a barrier to self-regulation."
"But we used authority to reduce the temptations in our environment," the cognitive scientist pointed out.
"It's a right tactic," she agreed. "But the authoritarian approach is self-fulfilling. If people don't practice self-regulation, they don't have the emotional muscle for it when the time comes."
"That could be," the other woman allowed.
"It leads people to think that legislation or some sort of reference to authority is the way to go when, really, that doesn't work. Mostly, we need to spend more time watching our own thoughts and actions. We want a substitute for that. But there isn't one."