Hidden Mechanisms Change (Or Ruin) Lives

I’m endlessly fascinated by counterintuitive truths.

When something generates the opposite result of what you’d expect, that means there’s a deeper, hidden mechanism at play. It means that the most obvious factors are less meaningful than the factors you have to work to find.

The Skim Milk Paradox

I used an example of a hidden mechanism in my latest book, Mini Habits for Weight Loss, is full-fat versus non-fat dairy. It would seem that if you want to get trimmer and have a choice between these two types of milk, you’d surely be better off with low-fat or non-fat milk. Right? The opposite is true.

Did you know that farmers fed pigs skim milk in 1934 for the sole purpose of fattening them up? Many years later, skim milk became a weight loss fad. Why?

The reason skim milk makes humans (and pigs) fatter than whole milk is because of a hidden mechanism. On the surface, you compare an 8 oz glass of each type.

  • 8 oz nonfat: 77 calories
  • 8 oz whole milk: 136 calories

Whole milk has nearly twice the calories of nonfat milk. But there’s a hidden mechanism that matters far more than how many calories each contains—satiety.

Whole milk is much more satiating than nonfat milk. In other words, you’re going to feel far more satisfied after a glass of whole milk than a glass of skim milk. This means that you’ll be more likely to drink additional skim milk (or eat other food) if you start with skim milk.

Artificial Sweeteners, Too

The same concept applies to artificial sweeteners. Studies show that artificial sweeteners are more strongly associated with weight gain and obesity than even pure sugar (a rather alarming comparison, as sugar and weight gain are like high school sweethearts who stay married 70 years).

Sugar has more calories than the zero you get with artificial sweeteners, but it’s not as bad for weight loss because it actually satisfies both of your reward systems, taste and postingestive. Sugar is still terrible for weight loss attempts, but this is a direct comparison to artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners satisfy your taste reward system but not your postingestive system (since they’re not real food, the pleasure sensors in your gut are not satisfied by them). At taste, the expectation for immediate sugar energy is set, and then its shattered once it reaches your gut. It’s basically teasing your body with the one thing you’re trying to avoid. Consuming artificial sweeteners will make you crave sweet things more than anything else.

Eating artificial sweeteners to avoid sugar is like wanting to quit smoking, and wearing a visor with cigarettes dangling off of it so they’re always in your view and on your mind.

You can see from these examples how these hidden mechanisms, if not known, can cause people to do the exact opposite of what they think they’re doing, which is ruinous for obvious reasons. But if known, previously-hidden mechanisms can allow a life-changing difference. For more on the science on artificial sweeteners, dairy, and other foods (with references), check out Mini Habits for Weight Loss. As a bonus, you’ll get the best weight loss strategy in existence.

How to Find Hidden Mechanisms

The good news about hidden mechanisms is that their presence is easy to spot. All you have to do is observe the cause and effect of your actions, and weigh it against what you’d naturally expect. If something seems incongruent, there’s probably a hidden mechanism.

  • Gaining weight despite eating low-calorie “diet” foods. That doesn’t make sense. Maybe there’s more to it than calories? Maybe the “diet” label isn’t trustworthy? (Hidden mechanisms: inflammation, metabolic dysfunction from artificial sweeteners, poor satiety causing overeating, etc)
  • Writing amazing content but not being noticed. That doesn’t make sense. Maybe great writing isn’t what gets people noticed? Maybe my idea of great writing is different than others’ idea of great writing? (Hidden mechanism: marketing sells and quality makes them stay)
  • Making money/in a great relationship/living the dream but not happy. That doesn’t make sense. Maybe [insert dream here] isn’t the key to happiness? Maybe something else determines that? (Hidden mechanism: happiness is a function of contentment, which is generated by your expectations. High status and possessions can raise your expectations too high, making you less happy. Think of the spoiled brat kid, trained to —any imperfection sends them into a tantrum. Read my Imperfectionist book for more on this!)

Case in point, when I did one push-up and it turned into a 30-minute workout (the same one I was unable to do via motivation), that prompted a search for a hidden mechanism. Why would aiming for something so… trivial… be an effective way to achieve something meaningful? That disconnect between expectation and reality meant that I didn’t fully understand how everything worked.

There were a few hidden mechanisms at play that carried more weight than expected. Here are some of the hidden mechanisms of a mini habit (the counterintuitive, but very effective way to form habits and change your behavior). On the surface, doing a behavior for a single repetition or a mere minute seems inconsequential, but it is actually very powerful because of…

  1. Momentum: starting small often means finishing large because starting a process makes you far more able and willing to finish it (even in your initial intent was to stop).
  2. Self-efficacy: A mini habit is so easy to do, meaning that if you intend to do it, you’ll be able to do it. While small, this is still a valid boost to your self-efficacy, or your belief that your can influence an outcome. If you set a goal and meet it, you influenced an outcome. This is a big confidence builder!
  3. Consistency: The long-term power of a mini habit is, of course, due to the relative ease of being consistent (compared to most goals). You should still put in effort to track and perform the habit, but with that minimal effort, you’ll succeed and change your brain.

I never considered those things until experimenting with one push-up and being surprised that it did more than it was “supposed to.” If there’s something that doesn’t make sense in your life—whether it’s something good or bad—you haven’t yet found the hidden mechanism that’s driving it. Find it, and your life will get easier.

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