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3 Reasons It’s Hard to Admit Diets are a Mistake

Note: This is based on my understanding of the book Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. Any errors are mine.

I recently read a fascinating book called Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz. As the title suggests, she looked at everything around making mistakes: why we don’t like to admit errors, why we make mistakes to begin with, how it feels to be wrong, what’s good about making mistakes, and how we can learn from times we’ve been wrong.

I have to agree with her that most of us don’t like admitting when we’re wrong – as someone who’s a bit of a perfectionist, I certainly don’t find it comfortable. Schulz writes: “As with dying, we recognize erring as something that happens to everyone, without feeling it either plausible or desirable that it will happen to us. Accordingly, when mistakes happen anyway, we typically respond as if they hadn’t, or as if they shouldn’t have: we deny them, wax defensive about them, ignore them, downplay them, or blame on somebody else.” (p. 6)

But then something odd occurred to me. People who go on diets but don’t lose weight – or don’t keep it off – don’t seem to have problems pointing out all the things they did “wrong” on the diet. They ate what they weren’t supposed to, ate too much, didn’t drink enough water, ate too late at night, etc. It made me wonder why those types of errors seem to be easy to admit.

Then I realized the answer. For so many, it’s easier to think they did something wrong on the diet than to admit they were wrong about diets in the first place.

When I thought about it that way, it made a lot more sense. With that in mind, and based on my understanding of Schulz’s book, here are a few reasons that people often don’t want to admit they’re wrong about diets.

Confirmation bias

In case you’re not familiar with the term confirmation bias, it refers to “the tendency to give more weight to evidence that confirms our beliefs than to evidence that challenges them.” (p. 124)

This means that once you already believe something, you’ll focus on evidence that supports your belief, and you’re very likely to ignore or deny anything that contradicts the belief.

In the case of diets, the belief is that if you go on the diet and follow the rules, you’ll lose weight. The secondary – but often unstated – belief is that you’ll be able to stop dieting and keep the weight off.

If this is what you believe, you’ll find it very hard to accept that diets don’t work, at least in the long term. You may well lose some weight initially, but the majority of people who try to lose weight with diets will gain most of it back. Some will even gain back more than they lost (been there, done that).

But confirmation bias will encourage you to focus on the initial weight loss, and the few people who do keep the weight off, as proof that diets work.

If you believe in diets, as hard as it may be to admit you’re wrong, it’s important to be open to the realities of how diets work, or rather, how they don’t work.

Societal influences

Another reason it’s hard to give up believing in diets is that our society still believes in them. And though you may like to think of yourself as an independent thinker, you might not be.

None of us has the time to learn everything, and we certainly don’t have the time to prove why everything works the way it does. We all rely on other people’s expertise, as well as knowledge gained by those in the past, to proceed with our lives. And in these days of the online review, we also tend to rely a lot on the opinions of others, even those we don’t know.

Schulz pointed out that most of the time this isn’t a problem and is, in fact, necessary. But sometimes this tendency to follow the crowd backfires.

As an example, consider an experiment done by Solomon Asch, a social psychologist, in the 1950s. The experiment involved bringing small groups into a room and showing them two flashcards. The first card had a single vertical line on it, and the second had three vertical lines of different heights, labeled A, B, and C. Each person had to state out loud which line on the second card matched the line on the first card.

The test was very easy, and people were wrong less than 1% of the time. But then Asch switched things up.

In the experiment, only one person in each group was a subject. The rest worked for Asch, and they started giving wrong answers on purpose – the same wrong answer.

Think about how that would feel. You’re comparing the lengths of the lines, and you’re pretty confident in your answer, but then someone else gives a different answer. Then a second, third, fourth, and fifth person all give the same different answer. Would you second-guess yourself? Start to think that maybe you’re wrong, not the others?

If so, you wouldn’t be alone. When the experiment changed to this, 75% of the subjects answered incorrectly at least once, and 25% were wrong at least half the time. Based on the group influence, the error rate increased to nearly 37%. (p. 144)

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that when our society, the media, our friends and family and coworkers, all seem to believe that diets work, it’s easy for us to believe it, too. It also becomes more difficult to be the lone voice saying something different – but it’s not impossible. And it’s a little easier once you recognize the role that society is playing.

Disrupted sense of self

But I think perhaps the biggest reason it’s hard for people to admit they’re wrong about diets is because it can disrupt your sense of yourself.

As Schulz explains it: “…[Our] errors represent a moment of alienation from ourselves…. [The] most obvious way the experience of being wrong can affect our identity… [is to] conclude that we were mistaken about who we thought we were.” (p. 281)

And I think that for those of us who struggle with food and eating, our beliefs about who we are get tied up with our bodies, and some of that is also fueled by society.

Think about it this way. If you’re in a larger body, other people may view you as lazy, stupid, unhygienic, lacking in willpower, out of control, unattractive, etc. You may even believe those things about yourself, at least subconsciously.

From that light, believing in the promise of diets, that you can lose weight and keep it off, is believing that you can become something else. In addition to being thinner, in the eyes of others (and perhaps yourself), you’ll be active, smart, someone who takes care of themselves, in control, attractive, and more.

So if you’re asked to give up believing in diets, you could feel like you’re giving up on becoming that second version of yourself, and you’re stuck with the first version. That would be a very hard pill to swallow.

The good news is, giving up belief in diets doesn’t mean that at all. Rather, it means giving up on the false image of yourself as you are right now, as someone unworthy, out of control, etc. Giving up a belief in diets allows you to realize that you’re already the person in the second version – smart, worthwhile, and more.

Even if other people don’t see that at first, once you do, you’ll become more confident in yourself, which will help others see the person you really are – no matter your size.

Believing in diets doesn’t make their claims true

It can be hard to go against what the crowd believes. You may think, all those people must be onto something, right? They can’t all be wrong.

But sometimes, they really can all be wrong, as is the case with diets. While a small number of people may end up at a lower weight than when they started, the vast majority of dieters gain the weight back, and some even end up heavier than they were.

So if you still believe in diets, try to be open to the possibility that you’re wrong, and remember that if you are, that doesn’t mean you’re “giving up” or that you’ll never be the version of yourself you want. Instead, start focusing on all the ways you’re already the person you want to be, and build on that, which you can do no matter what size body you have.


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