The Extreme Reach Fallacy

1) Count calories? Who has time for that?

2) Keep track of what I eat? Nah, I don't want to watch my diet that carefully. Can't I just enjoy my food?

3) There's no WAY I'd track my expenses to the penny. What are you, anal?

Readers, can you see what these three sentences have in common?

Each involves shooting down an idea by jumping to the extreme. In all three cases, the speaker makes a potential solution seem more difficult than it really is, which gives him a gift-wrapped justification for ruling out the idea.

This "Extreme Reach" fallacy is an excuse script that lets us rationalize and maintain our prior unsuccessful habits.

Let's put the sentences above in context by imagining a conversation that might surround them:

Person A: I'd really like to lose 20 pounds.
Person B: Really? Well, I managed to lose 45 pounds by counting calories. It really worked well for me.
Person A (defensive): Count calories? Who has time for that?

See what just happened there? Person A opens a conversation by claiming he wants to lose weight, but then when presented with a possible solution, he makes the absurd claim that counting calories takes too much time.

Never mind that counting calories actually doesn't take much time at all, and never mind that some have found it to be astoundingly effective. The point, of course, is that Person A gets to act like he wants to lose weight, while creating a ready-made rationalization for not taking action. And if Person B is a member of polite society, she'll smile wanly and change the subject. Which completes the circle of rationalization.

Hard to believe all this can happen in such a short conversation, right?

Okay, let's move on to our second example:

Person C: How in the world do you stay so thin? What do you do?
Person D: Oh, I struggled with my weight for years. But in 2010, I decided to keep a notebook where over three months I wrote down everything I ate. Literally everything. Man, I couldn't believe it when I saw it all in my own handwriting--how many sodas I was drinking, how much ice cream, how many snacks. It forced me to really accept what I ate. After that I started making big changes to my eating habits.
Person C (defensive): Keep track of what I eat? Nah, I don't want to watch my diet that carefully. Can't I just enjoy my food?

Person C leaps to an extreme conclusion too: keeping track of what she eats means she has to watch her diet more carefully than she'd like. Worse, it will interfere with her enjoyment of food.

This claim is of course exactly backwards. It's actually more plausible that keeping track of what she eats would help her enjoy her food more. Further, what does "watch my diet that carefully" mean, exactly? There are lots of ways to track your diet, some of which are probably easier than she thinks.

Sadly, she didn't leave the door open for these considerations. This idea died the moment it collided with her mind.

Do you see the pattern here? Now, to our last example:

Person Y: How did you manage to retire at such a young age? Man, I'd love to quit my job and retire early.
Person Z: Have you heard of this book Your Money Or Your Life?
Person Y: Yes! I saw something about it on some guy's food blog that I read every so often. He wrote some series on it. It was kind of long and boring, so I didn't read it.
Person Z: Well, we basically followed the steps of the book, starting several years ago. We started by tracking our expenses to the penny for a full ye--
Person Y (defensive, interrupting): There's no WAY I'd track my expenses to the penny. What are you, anal?

Ouch, right? Person Y spontaneously murders the conversation with an extreme reach excuse, and he also gets in a bonus dig at Person Z. (Well played!) Person Y knows for sure that tracking your expenses is "anal" and therefore unworthy of consideration.

But wait. What if tracking your expenses is just another minor daily habit, like brushing your teeth? That's what we found here at CK: within days of adopting our expense-tracking habit, we were doing it in a fraction of the time we spent brushing our teeth.

Or is brushing your teeth anal too?

Either way, instead of considering a new idea that might be congruent with his goals, Person Y employs the extreme reach fallacy to rationalize taking no action. And he likely walks away from this conversation with an improved opinion of himself.

Watch for this excuse script in and around your daily life. Believe me: now that you're familiar with it, you'll see it and hear it all over the place. Don't complete the circle of rationalization.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ramit at I Will Teach You To Be Rich for helping me think through some of the ideas in this post.


Stuart Carter said...

(Daniel, I think your person A/B example got mangled...)

I hit this exact same fallacy a couple of years ago when I first started looking into Dave Ramsey Financial Peace. Budget every penny, who has time for that? The thing is that his principles work because they make you extremely conscious of every penny you spend. Once I grokked this, I was talking about it with a former colleague - she had declared bankruptcy because of credit card debt. She took the bankruptcy, emerged from it.. then bought a new car. On credit. Which turned out to be a lemon... and she had no cash to pay for the repairs that happened after the warranty expired, so she put them on a credit card.

The problem with the former colleague, and the problem I hit myself, is that a lot of the time we just want to whine about the problem. We don't actually *want* to do anything about it, we just want to whine. Doing something about it involves change... and change is *scary*.

As Dave Ramsey puts it: "broke is normal. Be weird!"

chacha1 said...

If you could emulsify the world of excuses that people make about poor eating habits, then let the slurry sit for a while, I'll bet what would rise to the top would be a thick film of these extreme-reach, knee-jerk, defensive and idiotic responses.

I think Stuart is right: in many cases, a person who starts a conversation about, say, losing weight or improving their diet does not want to change.

They just want to TALK about it because in their mind talking about it = doing something.

Daniel said...

Stuart, thanks for the correction, I just fixed it.

And I hear you on financial questions too. It's excellent hunting ground for extreme reach excuses.

Chacha, I think you're onto something. Talking about a problem somehow (for some) does seem to mentally equate to taking action. There's a term in psychology: "the sense of completion," where after talking about doing something (like writing a book, losing weight, saving money, etc.), your brain gives you a tiny squirt of seratonin (or oxytocin or something--I forget the name of the neurochemical) that makes you feel a little like you actually *did* something. It's a stand-in for the real thing.

Thanks to both of you for the great comments.