My dad once told me about a client who wanted to lose weight. She’d tried everything with no luck.
Mary, we’ll call her, had tried to lose weight every which way and nothing doing: Exercise, diet, privation, therapy, hypnosis, acupuncture and despair were of no use, she had tried them all. According to my dad, she came to his office asking for a foolproof way to lose her extra pounds.
“For foolproof, you’d have to go to Vietnam,” he answered, “live with a family in the country and work side by side with them. In six months, you’ll be a healthy asparagus, same as them.” She was astonished. “You’re programmed,” he explained. “You eat all kinds of stuff because you can; it’s cheap, it’s available everywhere and sometimes looks like a trifling portion in a big plate, for all those reasons. Get away from temptation, and I can almost guarantee results.”
I was doubtful and said so. Then he told me he had honked at a driver once for going one notch less than the speed limit, then passed the person only to realize it was an older gentleman trying his best to keep his car between the lines. “Why do you think I did that?” he asked. “Beats me,” I remember saying. “You’re the shrink, not me.” He thought about it and frowned.
“Ten seconds later, we were both waiting for the same red light to turn green,” he continued. “In the end, I gained nothing and possibly managed to upset a Civil War veteran.”
It wasn’t the end of the world, but he did learn something. “I’ve been programmed,” he told me. “We all are and don’t even realize it.”
I volunteered to set up an experiment and report the findings. The opportunity came a month later when a fellow worker said he was taking court-ordered anger management classes and was furious. “I control my anger better than anybody,” he argued, then went on a tirade against judges in general and one in particular.
It was then I remembered the experiment I wanted to try and thought this might be the opportunity. “You only think you can control your anger,” I commented, “but I bet your reaction is programmed and you have no more control of your anger than the man in the moon.”
“You sound like that damned judge,” he replied. It was then I went out on a limb and dared him to come for a drive. “I bet I can get you all upset,” I stated, “and do it by doing absolutely nothing.”
The bet was on, and as I suspected, the poor chump didn’t have a chance. We drove for two minutes, and with a little bit of timing, I managed to stop before a red traffic light on Carroll Boulevard with no one behind me. That was the hard part. The rest was easy.
When the light turned green, I kept talking to him and fussing with the radio, while going nowhere. And it didn’t take long for the fireworks to begin. “It’s green,” he said after one second. I said nothing. “What are we waiting for?” he protested and got a little flushed. In less than 15 seconds and knowing full well what I was doing, he was turning purple anyway; I thought he was going to have a heart attack.
Later that evening, I saw my dad and explained what had happened. “Your friend was fully programmed,” he concluded, and explained to me some of the prompts in the mind of a person that trigger that kind of behavior. The irony was, I hadn’t done anything, yet that little bit of nothing was enough.
Back to Mary. To my dad’s unending surprise, she followed his advice to the letter and went to Vietnam. Unusual, since his patients preferred getting a prescription. But not her.
“She came back a different person,” he reported. “Not only did she lose her extra pounds but learned a new language and is marrying an American working at the embassy in Saigon, to boot.”
We’re all programmed, I suppose. Too bad figuring that out is the easy part.