Using Language to Change Behavior, and An Update on the Soylent Experiment

Howdy all and happy Blog Day! Today I’m giving you an update on the “Soylent Experiment” I talked about in this article, and then we’ll talk about using language to change behavior.

Soylent Experiment Update

Don’t care? Jump to the article on language below.

I began my Soylent meals on Friday 10/23. I weighed in that morning (6:00 AM) at 176.8 lbs, 23.4% body fat, and 37.7% body muscle. Prior to weigh-in, I consumed 8 ounces of water, no food, and was fresh from 7 hours of sleep. This matters because I’ll be recreating these conditions when I retest my biometrics as the experiment progresses.

My choice in product is Soylent Powder 1.5, which comes in 460 gram packets that account for 2,000 calories split into 45% carbohydrates, 40% fats, and 15% protein. This is lower in protein than I would normally eat, as I tend to shoot for 30-40% protein day to day.

Over the last five days (Friday to Tuesday, 10/23 to 10/27) I have consumed 1,000 calories in Soylent, and approx. 1,000 calories in solid foods per day. The plan has been to acclimate myself to Soylent as 100% of my diet over several days. Beginning today (Wednesday, 10/28) I will be going 100% Soylent for the remaining 10 days of the experiment.

From interest, I took my weight on the morning of Monday, 10/26, under the same conditions as the previous Friday. I found that my weight came in at 174.8 lbs. I know that I was consuming the same water, caffeine, and exercise as normal, so the change was interesting to see. I admit, this may be due to a lower caloric load in general, or to less food remaining in my system from the prior day, but as someone who has always had weight issues, seeing a 2 lbs weight loss over the weekend from a simple change was welcome.

Physically…I feel pretty great, actually. My hunger response has been muted, and I don’t find myself compelled to consume extra food as the day goes on. This may be a placebo effect since I’ve decided on my meals ahead of time, but there’s the real possibility that the Soylent is formulated in such a way as to digest slowly and provide satiation longer than the foods I’m used to. I have experienced no gastrointestinal issues, no headaches, no allergic reactions, and no side-effects that I can identify.

The taste is…like finely-ground oatmeal soaked in water and chilled, to the consistency of a milkshake. I’ve come to like it, actually, but I have experimented with adding flavor to the mix with small bits of chocolate, honey, and – since it’s Girl Scout cookie time of the year – some crushed up Thin Mints! In each case, I took careful measure of the flavoring I added, so as not to skew the caloric load too much: 50 calories of chocolate (pretty good), 50 calories of honey (really good), and 200 calories of Thin Mints (amazing!). These were used to flavor the whole batch of Soylent in one go, and I’ve found that I can add fewer Thin Mints to get the same flavor effect, but the chocolate and honey additions were pretty spot on. I’m excited to try some calorie-free options soon.

So far, that’s it! I’ve lost 2 lbs in a few days, Soylent tastes better than people, and Thin Mints make everything better!

Using Language to Change Behavior

How we speak has a profound effect on our behavior, both internally in the form of thought and externally in the form of action. Language is used to describe ourselves, others, the world, and the interactions that occur between all these things. More than just a mashing of nouns and verbs, language also helps us understand the quality of these interactions: good, bad, or otherwise. Taken further, language helps us determine how we should feel about the actors, their actions, and the qualities of those actions.

When we say, “Jimmy hit Sally” we know by the nature of the words that someone has done something violent (usually considered bad), and not only that we also know that it was male to female action, which increases the notion of negativity in the sentence. This simple example shows that the nuances being conveyed when we speak affects our thinking to a great degree. If we take the reverse of the sentence above, “Sally hit Jimmy”, not only does the perceived negativity decrease, but we begin to think how this situation could, actually, be comical. Note that this doesn’t speak to the reality of what we’re discussing; only to our perceptions of it.

How we use language and what we say shifts our understanding, our emotions, and our thoughts. With all the internal changes based on what we hear, it’s no surprise that language can also shape how we act physically. Much as someone might perceive Jimmy as an aggressor in the first sentence, their body language towards Jimmy would likewise turn more towards the unfriendly, possibly showing reciprocal aggression on Sally’s behalf, or at the least viewing Jimmy with wariness. We act according to how we think, and we think according to how we speak.

Verbal Behavior Cues

Using language to influence action is called a “verbal behavior cue” (VBC, for short); a word or phrase that is intended to initiate a specific, repeatable physical response. Typically the best (i.e. most effective) VBC’s are short, simple phrases of three words or less. The human mind can comprehend language in large doses, able to listen to and interpret poems, novels, speeches, and dialog almost by default, but the length of the language affects how quickly the mind can integrate what it hears/reads. Longer sentences require more effort to understand, and so are less helpful with changing behavior in an immediate sense.

In contrast, short phrasal or single word VBC’s are easy to understand and act on almost immediately. According to an interesting study by Microsoft on the attention span of the average person, you have about 8 seconds to convey the information you want to get across before their attention waivers. So, how many words can you get across in 8 seconds?

According to the tool Script Timer by Edge Studio, the average speaking speed is three words per second, so in eight seconds you can say this sentence. Keep in mind that just because you can speak that many words in eight seconds, it doesn’t mean that your audience can hear, interpret, and make use of the information you’re giving them.

For the sake of this discussion, lets agree that it takes a certain amount of time to understand something. and that it also takes a certain amount of time to act on that understanding. That shouldn’t be too much of a stretch, and I can demonstrate it easily enough. Below is a 26 word question that should be pretty easy to answer. Read and estimate how long it takes you to act on the information you’re given to answer.

John has five apples and ten oranges. He eats one apple and three oranges. How many of each does he have if he loses another two apples?

What’s the answer?

It took me about two seconds to answer the question after reading it, using random numbers to keep the math fresh after writing it. I know I’m not a super genius, but I would estimate my performance to be above average based on two factors: I’m good at math and I had an understanding of the question going in. Based on that, my estimation is it would take 3-5 seconds (avg. 4 seconds) to interpret those 26 words and come up with an answer. So it’s reasonable to say it takes half as much time to interpret and use the information provided as it does to speak that information. If we look at the whole experience of listening and comprehending as 100% of our available time, that means that 66.7% of the time is spent listening and 33.3% of the time is spent understanding.

Lets take that further and jump back to our attention span info from earlier. If you only have eight seconds to change someone’s behavior before their attention waivers, you have 5.3 seconds to convey a thought, and they’ll use the other 2.7 seconds to interpret it. This cuts your usable words down to 16, and that’s assuming 100% comprehension without clarification. It doesn’t seem like too bad of a task. After all, how much information is being provided in just 16 words? Turns out, it can be quite a lot. Here’s a coaching example for someone who is having issues with a squatting movement:

You need to push your hips lower, press your knees apart, and get your chest up.

In 16 words and 5.3 seconds we’ve covered three different faults, how to correct them, and which body parts need the correction. Assuming someone can understand all of that in 2.7 seconds and make instant changes, this is a good cue. In reality, you will get one of those corrections. So what’s the point in using three cues to get one response?

The human mind can interpret information pretty fast, but it can only change actions so rapidly. So lets look at that eight seconds of attention span again, and now we’ll split it even further. We know that we need someone to Hear Us, Understand Us, and then Act on the Information. Assuming it takes just as long to Act as it does to Understand, we now have a time split of 50% Hear, 25% Understand, 25% Act (the 50/25/25 split). That cuts us down to four seconds to convey the action we need to change. You now have 12 words at maximum, and only enough time for one or two related actions. Something like:

You need your hips lower, and then push your chest up higher.

That’s about four seconds of instruction, with another four seconds to think and act on it. Consider hearing that in the middle of a workout, where you’re focused more on how sweaty and tired you are. You suddenly have all those words thrown at you, with the expectation you’ll understand them and do something different. What would be more important to your attention span and performance: hearing the maximum information so that you’re provided the minimum reaction time OR hearing the minimum information needed to change your behavior while providing you with the most time to spend following the direction? This isn’t a trick question; less info, more time to use it. Something like:

Hips lower, chest up.

Just four words, totaling about two seconds, with another six seconds to Understand and Act on them. Changing the dynamic of the time allows the person to more fully comprehend and integrate the instructions you give them into their current actions. Even though the human mind can, in theory, operate on the 50/25/25 split, it’s a better behavioral change system to give them a 25/25/50 split, where they spend the least time Hearing and Understanding, with the most time allocated for Acting.

The way to accomplish this is to distill your cues down to their core components, removing any language which is not necessary for conveying the exact behavioral change you want to make. Words like “you”, “I want”, etc. that serve to identify the speaker or the subject are unnecessary: they know you’re talking to them and conveying your wishes. Similarly, conjunctions and “proper” grammar can be left out, such as including “and”, “then”, etc that do nothing but provide structure. Lastly, you can generally remove words that indicate order, unless they are critical to the point (such as removing “then” from one of the previous cue examples).

Is a short sentence still good language, even without the grammar? Yes! The point of language is to convey an idea between the speaker and the listener, not to follow the arbitrary rules we have set-up to make it sound more pleasing and less “caveman’ish”.

Positive & Negative Language Cues

I’d like to take a moment to differentiate between two types of Verbal Behavior Cues.

Positive Cues are those that try to get the listener to do something. Negative Cues are those that try to get them to stop doing something. Here are two examples with the same goal:

Raise your chest.


Don’t lower your chest.

In the first sentence, we gave the listener something to do, and they will recall the words “raise chest” most strongly because they are a verb-noun combination, the root of language. This is good, because this is exactly what we want them to do. In contrast, the second sentence tells them to do the same action, but using the negative form. What they’ll recall most strongly is “lower chest”, another verb-noun combination and even though they won’t mean to, their brains will start filtering out the “don’t” portion. Now, they have the opposite of what we want in their heads.

We’ve already discussed that language shapes thought, and thought shapes action. The transitive property of mathematics states, then, that language shapes behavior. In order to create a new behavior, or improve the expression of one we want, we should use positive cues to place the thought of enacting that behavior in our audience’s mind.

Examples would be:

Be kind to others.

Save money every month.

Eat vegetables every day.

Hips down in your squat.

Each of these encourages what we want, rather than trying to extinguish what we don’t want. From an actionable standpoint, knowing what to do is usually more helpful than knowing what not to do when it comes to task completion. From a social standpoint, it is generally more well received to encourage someone to correct action than it is to discourage them from bad action. And lastly, from a personal accomplishment standpoint, people will feel better about doing something right than they will be simply not doing something wrong. Speak to the actor the way they need to be spoken to, and change will come.