Be Wary of the Goal of “Moderation,” Plus a Cocktail-Party Trick.

Assay: I’ve been thinking a lot about moderation lately.

I’m an abstainer, so moderation is often tough for me (are you an abstainer or a moderator?), but I certainly hear people talk about their striving for moderation, and I strive for moderation in many areas of my life.

But while moderation is often a helpful goal, it can also be deceptive. It’s easy to forget that “moderation” is a relative term, and if you’re aiming for moderation, it’s helpful to ask yourself, “Moderation, in comparison to what?”

I thought of this when a friend told me he was going to cut back on his drinking. “I don’t need to quit, but I want to keep it in moderation,” he said. “So I’m going to limit myself to two drinks a night.” Zoikes, I thought, I don’t have two drinks in a month. I’m not saying that two drinks is too much, but rather, the idea that a particular amount is “moderate” depends on your point of view.

Along the same lines, in his brilliant book Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes points out that two hundred years ago, we ate less than a fifth of the sugar that we eat today. So eating a  “moderate” amount of sugar by today’s standards could be considered excessive by historical standards.

When I was in law school, I had a housemate who never got any exercise. None. Because of a medical issue, her doctor told her to start getting “moderate” exercise. Her solution was to walk from our house to the law school a few times a week, instead of driving the way she usually did.  “Wow,” she’d say proudly, “I walked today.” Now, we lived three blocks from school; was this what her doctor meant by moderate exercise? She thought so.

One person’s excessive TV-watching is another person’s moderate TV-watching. And so on.

Our sense of what’s “moderate” is also affected by the psychological phenomenon of “false consensus.” We tend to believe that other people agree with us, even when they don’t, and to overestimate the commonness of our preferences and habits. Because we think people are more like us than they are, we assume that what seems “moderate” to us is objectively moderate.

Also, because of “homophily,” which is the tendency of people to associate with similar people, we tend to be friends with people who have the same sense of how much drinking, or sugar, or exercise, or reading, is moderate or excessive. So you do, in fact,  see your tendencies reflected in the people around you.

Cocktail-party trick: the false-consensus effect is a way to get a (possibly) truthful answer from someone who might not be forthcoming. If you ask a question like, “Do you think most people pay their taxes?” “Do most married couples fight a lot?” or “Do most people take home a lot of office supplies?” you’ll probably get an answer that reflects what your interlocutor does do–even if he or she might not admit it, if you asked straight up.

I’m not arguing that moderation is a bad goal–often, I think, it’s a worthy goal–but rather, we need to take the time to think about what we considerate “moderate,” and why.

What do you think? Do you aim for moderation? How do you decide what is “moderate”?

  • Yes, moderation is relative, subjective and self-justified. We need to be given numbers: walk briskly for 20min. But what is briskly to me… OK, walk at a speed where you can just talk comfortably to a co-walker, for 20min. A day. Borders, boundaries, limits – we need them.

    Like the party trick; must remember it.

  • I am, in most things, an abstainer. I know this better than I know today’s date.

    However, I recently had an interesting experience of discovering how to be what *I* consider moderate while also practicing abstinence. That meant a bit of research so that I could – and this is the important part – specifically identify, define, and measure where my ‘bottom lines’ are. Self-designed, self-imposed rules work very well for some people, and I’m one of them (though I do need accountability to others I trust in order to make this work for me).

    But the trick really is in defining what we mean by words like “moderate.” For example, in my eating that means limiting myself to 100 carbs per day MAX, with one exception for week IF it’s 1) not more than ~50g over that 100, 2) well-planned in advance, and 3) something I actively share with someone who knows about my food issues – no hiding or sneaking. (I also have well-researched danger zones, like bodegas and drug stores, so I don’t indulge in such places.) On my birthday, I had a small (gluten-free, sugar-free) treat I normally would not have had. But it was within the boundaries I’d defined, and it was with people who knew my situation. That, for me, was a huge (though well-calculated and not compulsive) splurge – but at another time in my life, it would have been restrictive and depriving. Specific and personally defined boundaries are very important here, in my experience.

  • Calwinter

    You might enjoy a book by Richard Foster, A Celebration of Discipline. I’m an abstainer who really wishes I were a moderator, and this book helps you figure out how to gain control either way, and enjoy it.

    • gretchenrubin

      What a thought-provoking title. I’ll check it out, thanks!

  • V

    You taught me that in many ways I’m just not a moderator, and that it’s okay. Moderation is overrated. I’d rather be an abstainer than try to manage my chocolate consumption moderately. Managing it just annoys me. Get these alluring choices off the table and move on to other, more important things. I could be a great moderator except for Girl Scout cookies around the house, and deep fried shrimp on a Saturday night. Know yourself, I guess. Thankyou.

  • Very interesting. Moderation is a very relative term and really shouldn’t be used by ‘experts’ or advice givers to help us justify our historically-relatively excessive existence. I suppose I use moderation as a conscious process to addressing and curbing the things that have a destructive impact on my life and those around me. It is a means rather than an end goal. It is mostly about consumption, habits and somewhat ego-centric behaviours I suppose. It helps us to realise that we are free to choose. I can identify with the drinking one. For a while I was drinking every night. Then I decided to moderate it and only allow myself a drink on Friday and Saturday. This could easily have led to a kind of legalism and ironically destructive rule oriented life. I have however had many weekends without a beer and realised that the moderation was a tool for getting somewhere else. If we don’t see it as the end point and rather a process of becoming free then moderation can be a helpful thing. It’s very easy to become judgemental and legalist about the way other people see moderation – but we can help and encourage.

  • Katie

    Excellent post! I’m definitely a moderator. I tend to get to my ideas of what’s moderate by researching what experts think and then mesh it with my gut feeling.

    I think it’s important for me to remember that it really is a matter perception. It might help me understand others better.

  • maxi

    I used to think, as you said that most people thought pretty much the same as me (whether they actually did or not is another issue). Then I moved from NY to the south where I am painfully aware that other people do NOT think the same as me on almost every publicly discussed issue – social, environmental, religious, lifestyle, you name it. And I do mean painful – it is hard to live where I feel 180 degrees apart from most people.

    Perhaps this is false non-consensus – assuming NO one thinks the same as me. Tho causal conversation and the local media reinforce that idea. My idea of moderate behavior is extreme secular liberalism by local standards. I have found a small circle of friends who think more like me – homophily (all transplants interestingly).

    So I’d like to add that whether there is reality to it, false consensus gives a sense of security and comfort that makes life happier. Thinking no one does makes you feel isolated and permanently defensive. I’ll take false consensus.

  • Jody

    I’m not certain I agree with everything you are saying here. Especially when you were talking about your friend who walked 3 blocks. I have an aunt who was a physical therapist and she talked about that type of improvement as a huge success for someone who never walked or exercised.. Her “three blocks” sound incremental as opposed to moderate.

    Of course your point about cutting back when you have a problem has merit; your friend may well have had a drinking problem and should stop. But you don’t actually speak about alcoholism and drug abuse and crossing a line that means you need to stop. Usually those people can’t stop without help, where someone who can moderate can differentiate.

    I think there is a difference and your comments make it sound like there is no room for moderation. That way of thinking might make those people more desperate and resistant to change who would be well served by moderation. Everything isn’t that black and white.

    I am very supportive of your work, I’m just not sure about this one. Thanks

  • Jenny W

    I agree, we tend to feel more comfortable around people who have similar values/habits, even in regard to eating and exercise. As a moderator, I do not feel comfortable around abstainers. Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, since I have made new friends who won’t eat carbs/sugar. I have other friends who never drink. Normally I love to cook and entertain, but these people do not make it fun for me because they are so rigid in their habits. Now I must work much harder to prepare a carb free menu and virgin cocktails. It has gotten to a point where I want to stop entertaining them.

    Abstainers tend to give off an air of superiority. They seem to be type “A” people who have trouble relaxing and don’t know how to lighten up. And those are not people that I enjoy being around. This is just my opinion from my own experience. I’m sure many will argue.

    Perhaps abstainers don’t silently look down on moderators, but this article actually confirms my suspicions. Regarding the man who limits himself to 2 drinks a night: HIs change in drinking habits IS moderate in comparison to his previous lifestyle. Who are we to judge others on what is moderate? Yes, the roommate was proud of herself for walking a couple of blocks. Both people deserved encouragement for any improvement, rather than secret criticism. We all have to start somewhere. Baby steps are more likely to lead to lasting change, rather than trying to run a marathon. There is much less of a tendency to burn out and fall off the wagon. We can’t assume what he doctor meant by moderate. A doctor might actually approve of starting off slow, and adding a block to her walk every so often.

    My point is, we need to do what is best for ourselves and not judge each other. Judgment and comparison to others leads to unhappiness. There is no happiness in comparing yourself to others – even if you believe your habits are superior. 

    • gretchenrubin

      My point isn’t that I was judging them. Wholly apart from what I thought of what they were doing, I think they were unaware of their own cognitive biases. Just a warning, for all of us, as we pursue moderation.

      A perfect example (which I didn’t think of yesterday) that we all face is portion control. Sixty years ago, portion sizes were much smaller. The CDC says that the average restaurant meal today is 4 times larger than in the 1950. So if a person tries to be “moderate,” it’s moderate according to today’s standards, but that might be very high looked at from a different angle. To me, an 8-ounce bottle of soft drink looks teensy tiny! Even though that was a “serving” back in the day. My moderate is still my moderate, but that kind of information gives food for thought (!).

      I agree, we all must start where we are, and make progress from there. But taking a larger perspective may shed a different light on our actions.

      • Jenny W

        Hi Gretchen,

        I understand the comparison of today’s “moderation” versus the moderation of yesteryear. Portion control seems more reasonable and enduring than cutting out carbs (or any particular food) all together. Wine glasses have become larger, plates, and so on. Personally, when I deprive myself of something, I am more apt to give in to temptation eventually and binge on that item. Moderation works for me, and I am of not overweight.

        However, I can see how moderation might not be an option for someone with an addictive personality, for example. I believe it is up to the individual to decide what works best for him/her. What someone else perceives as “moderation” is none of my business. 

        Admittedly, your example stories may have distracted me from the real point: What is moderation? Your comments of “Zoikes, I thought, I don’t have two drinks in a month” and “I had a housemate who never got any exercise. None,” struck me as somewhat judgmental or condescending. 

        Sorry. As a moderator, I could be fairly biased myself. I do enjoy your book and the thought-provoking comments on your blog. Thanks for allowing your readers to chime in!

    • JaninOC

      Avoiding alchol or particular types of food are a medical necessity for some people – whether they are type “A” or not – perhaps their problem is actually Type 2 diabetes or Type 1 for that matter. As a person who has dietary restrictions I really appreciate my friends who try to help or “accommodate” my needs rather than condemn them as acting superior. As for those people or friends who are unaware or uncaring of my diet challenges – I just eat what I can an am sure I always have a snack before dining with them so as to minimize my “weakness” of having to decline things they enjoy! So your post lets me know that as I have “suspected” some people don’t enjoy accommodating me. Well thank goodness for those who do!

      • Jenny W

        I am sorry you have diabetes, but you misread my post if you thought I was referring to people with health issues. I do have a friend who has Celiac disease, and I go out of my way to accommodate his gluten-free needs. 

        Recently, we had a Fourth of July party. My guests included carb-free, non-drinkers, gluten-free, and vegans alike. Do you know how difficult it is to accommodate ALL of these people in one party? All of the SELF IMPOSED restrictions (which is what we are talking about here) is starting to go overboard. 

        Just wondering… How often do you host parties and cook for all of these diet restrictions? You seem to be projecting your sensitivity to your own issues onto me, although I didn’t say I don’t accommodate people. I do, although it does take the fun out of entertaining. I never said I don’t feel for my guests who have health issues and have no choice. 

        Perhaps since you have special dietary needs, the considerate thing to do would be to let the hostess know you’ll be bringing your own food, since she is already working so hard on everything else. For the ones who don’t have health issues, it would be nice if they would lighten up a little. Thank goodness for those who do!

  • Rose

    As a moderator myself, I find it almost confrontational to read an article like this. Particularly, since you are a self proclaimed abstainer and, therefore, are biased by your own lifestyle. I don’t strive to be perfect, because I never will be and trying makes me unhappy.

    The value of moderation is that it creates habits. Healthy dieting, exercise, etc are most likely to be successful when people take small manageable steps. For instance, for your friend, by walking just even 3 blocks — she was creating a new habit and may have eventually start walking more often/longer/faster etc. If her doctor had told her to run an hour every day, I bet she would have done it once and quit.

    I realize abstaining works for some people, however, I feel it can be great source of stress for people who don’t naturally gravitate to that lifestyle.

    To me, moderation is all about balance in life. Getting some exercise, eating mostly healthy food, socializing regularly, keeping your house relatively clean, getting enough sleep most nights, etc. Obviously, over time, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones to improve ourselves, but I feel its important to do those things gradually. Since you would not want to entirely sacrifice one area of your life, in order to improve another.

    My mother’s advice was always “Everything in moderation. Including Moderation.” And I take her advice to heart.

  • Monica

    I do believe moderation is different for everyone. It depends on how much the individual considers is the balance between too much and too little.

    • gretchenrubin

      Perfectly put.

  • AJ

    Hi Gretchen, I think you need to reflect more on this one. What you say is very charged. More reflection could turn it into a true assay. Thank you for your work.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I think you’re right.

      For one thing, I think I conflated two ideas that shouldn’t be connected: one is abstaining vs. moderating, which has to do with the style that suits you when you’re trying to control how much you indulge in something (like French fries). Is it easier for you to abstain, or to indulge moderately?

      The second is the idea of “moderation” as a framework for evaluating what you’re doing. Clearly, all movement in the right direction is progress, and worth doing. But to me, the idea of “moderation” suggests a point between too much and too little—in a more or less objective sense. I think most people would agree that at some point, an amount of something becomes “too much” or “too little” by any standard. But how we determine what is MODERATION for OURSELVES is perhaps tricky, because of our biases. Ask me how much diet soda I consider to be quite “moderate”!

      Or maybe we use the term “moderate” purely subjectively – “I’ll eat a moderate amount of French fries.” Maybe this is indeed how most people use it. For myself, I know that I appeal to moderation as a more outward standard, and I think that may be misleading, or at least bear very close scrutiny.

      More complex issue than I realized.

  • Shari

    This post really struck home. I am at a point where I am attempting to maintain a prior weight loss. I’m finding that my weight loss success was due to a more abstainer mindset. However, when I allow myself to drift more into the moderator mindset, I no longer have the boundaries I need to lose weight. I think I am just fooling myself when I profess “All things in moderation.” Once again Gretchen, thank you for giving me some food for thought.

  • peninith

    Context rules any definition of moderation. Eating, drink and exercise seem to be the magnets for discussion here. What doesn’t work as a definition of ‘moderate’ is ‘social norms.’ Medically speaking, I am obese. Socially speaking, I don’t feel that way in the context of others at the shopping mall or the grocery store. There, I’d say ‘I could use to lose some weight.’ But I recently saw a film clip from a very early motion picture taken on an American city street a little more than 100 years ago. I thought the people ALL looked so THIN! And they were bundled up against winter cold. I’d have looked obese in that scene, all right.. I’ve also seen 1950s vintage pictures from a coffee hour at my parish church, with virtually EVERYONE smoking. A recent visit to some historic Revolutionary War-era sites including taverns, make it clear that an outrageous level of public drunkenness was common to court sessions, starting early in the morning. In the 19th century, a ‘walk’ commonly was a ramble of five miles or so. Using ‘moderation’ as a standard is not really a good idea, unless you research for some type of factual absolute norm. Looking around you is not a good way to determine what moderation really is.

  • I do agree with Rose, I also do think that moderation is all about balance. How we handle and live our lives. Not all the time we have to stay on our comfort zone. We need to grow ad learn through experience. Nice article though. Do you write often?

  • Moderation is a spectrum of psychological understanding that you will rarely be perfect in any pursuit. It is the aim of doing the best that you are capable of, but not easing your mind with excuses/justifications or allowing moments of weakness to bring you mindset down over longer periods of time. You don’t ‘deliberately plan’ to be moderate, or allow yourself to ‘cheat’ but you recover/adapt quickly, rebounding in the face of adversity when things do happen (and they will). The aim is 100% still, with the realistic knowledge that 100% is an impractical, improbable and unlikely target to hit. Give your all, knowing the gold medal is the icing on the cake, it’s the journey worth treasuring, the day-to-day, step-by-step process, you already went through that leads you to a desirable outcome by default. Furthermore, I don’t believe ‘moderation’ is a ‘goal,’ it’s the path, approach or system used moving towards a goal.

  • Oh we are so self indulgent, and I for one LOVE to justify and rationalize. BUT it can be so refreshing to be honest with myself. Once in a while. A doctor I was lamenting my lack of weight loss to said “If I fed you and exercised you for a month, do you think you would loose weight?” Uhhhh…..DANG.

  • To understand what is moderate we first have to make sure our perceptions are accurate. How we perceive the world around us affects our actions. In order to live our intentions we must become mindful and be able to take a step back and accurately view what is in front of us.-RobinKushner@WiseAboutWeight

  • Manda


    I thought the article was great and well written. I think a lot of people missed the point though – WHAT is moderation? Not dont be moderate, or your moderate is wrong, or your moderate will not lead to better choices. And as for the examples you used, i think they were fine and hit the mark. If the readers dont want to hear YOUR opinion, why log on and read YOUR blog?

  • Justine

    Moderation – not to be confused with mediocrity – to me always smacks of
    “what other people think” of your consumption or habits. Perhaps better
    viewed as a personal limit, we should also accept that if it isn’t
    working for us, we need to either change more – or take another angle on
    it (…except for chocolate and coffee, maybe.. :)) )