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How Old Was Gandhi When He Died or Why Testimonials Sell

Was Gandhi older or younger than nine when he died?

This is obviously a stupid question. Of course you know that Gandhi must have been older than nine when he lead India to independence.

So what has this question to do with anything?

Yesterday, on my way to Whitehorse in the Yukon, where I am advising my Yukon colleagues on better managing their obese patients, I picked up “Risk”, a book by the Ottawa journalist Dan Gardner, which deals with the issue of why we fear things we shouldn’t.

Much of what’s in the book has to do with basic human psychology and how we process and respond to bits of information with our guts rather than our heads.

The Gandhi question comes from an example in Gardner’s book. Of course we all know that Gandhi did not die before the age of nine, so seriously, guess how old he really could have been when he was assassinated?

It turns out that in carefully conducted experiments by the German psychologists Fritz Strak and Thomas Mussweiler, in which people were first asked the nonsense “nine” question and then asked to try and guess how old they thought Gandhi really was when he died, their average guess was around 50.

Strak and Mussweiler then asked another set of volunteers the “nonsense” question, but this time it was whether they thought that Gandhi died before or after age 140. Then after agreeing that this was indeed nonsense, the participants were asked to seriously think about how old he might have been – this time around, their answer was 67.

So simply by throwing a ridiculously low number out there, the researchers apparently made people guess a lower age than by throwing out a ridiculously high number, despite the fact that in both cases the first number could obviously not have been true.

This experiment, as do many others in the psychology literature, illustrate a phenomenon Gardner refers to as the ‘Anchoring Rule’. This rule describes our natural tendency to be influenced in our judgment by numbers even when we fully know they are ridiculous or even have absolutely nothing to do with the issue at hand.

Of course we know Gandhi could not have been nine when he died, so he must have been older – and we quickly try to recall images of him and all the stuff he did and try to make a reasonable guess – namely perhaps around 50 or so? So we are making adjustments for what we know to be wrong and come up with a number that we think is more likely.

When we start with 140, we know this is ridiculously high and of course Gandhi must have been much younger when he died and immediately, we call up exactly the same mental image of Gandhi and think of all he accomplished and in the end estimate that he could well have been, say, in his late sixties when he died.

In both cases we are starting with numbers we know are definitely wrong and are correcting them to something we consider more reasonable. Once we’ve heard the number ‘nine’ we underestimate the possible age of death. In contrast, once we’ve heard the number ‘140’, our guesstimate is much higher.

So how does this relate to testimonials and weight loss expectations?

We’ve all seen the commercials with testimonials from people who have lost an incredible amount of weight (say 250 lbs), often in a ridiculously short amount of time (say 3 months), with virtually no effort (say just by taking the super-expensive ‘all-natural’ supplements).

Ok, so we all know that this, even if remotely true, is probably the best result ever and because we know that the company wants to sell us their product or service, they are probably presenting their best case (in fact they’ll will happily state on their ad that this result may not be typical).

So we make adjustments – yeah, maybe if I join I’ll not lose 250 lbs (because I know that’s ridiculous) but, hey, maybe I’ll lose 60 or maybe even only 40 lbs. And of course I know that 3 months is an unrealistic time frame, so I mentally readjust this number to, let’s say, 6 months. And yes, of course, it’s not just taking the pills that’ll make this happen, sure, I’ll probably also have to make some lifestyle changes like eat healthier and perhaps do a few minutes of exercise everyday, because of course I know there’s so such thing as ‘magical’ supplements.

But you know what – 40 lbs in 6 months with healthy eating and a bit of exercise, that sounds reasonable and if the supplements can help me do that, then maybe $199 a month (first month free!) is perhaps not such a bad deal – so, now that I have seen through the ad and have reasonably adjusted my expectations, where can I order this stuff?

This is exactly how the Anchoring Rule works – despite being very cautious and reasonable, it works every time – even in the smartest and most cautious people!

Indeed, the power of testimonials is so compellingly effective and misleading, that it is in fact illegal for doctors in Canada to use patient testimonials to promote their services, even if these testimonials are completely honest and true!

This is why, by law, I am prohibited from posting any of the many comments that I receive from former patients who have successfully managed their weight problem and want to personally thank me by posting their success stories on my blog.

But of course, what applies to me as a regulated health professional, does not apply to any of the commercial weight loss programs that can bombard you with all kinds of success stories and testimonials, the more unrealistic and wildly atypical, the better for their sales.

Thanks to the Anchoring Rule, even the most ridiculous success story, after reasonable adjustment, will still sound convincing enough to make you risk spending a few bucks.

So, the next time you read a wildly enthusiastic weight loss testimonial and consider signing up, simply ask yourself – could Gandhi really have died before he turned nine?

Whitehorse, Yukon


  1. OK, Dr. Sharma, you made me “google” Gandhi to find out exactly how old he was when he was assassinated. I truly thought that he was younger than 79 when he died!!
    I share a birthdate with Gandhi – Oct. 2.

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  2. The commercial testimonials anchor people on a fast large weight loss.

    The medical profession – perhaps because of the “no testimonial” rule you mentioned, seems to be the opposite – it points out all the people who don’t lose weight, or who regain weight, and makes it seem like that is the only result possible. This is “managing patient expectations”.

    I think the medical profession suffers from the opposite end of the “Anchoring Rule”.

    In the medical context doctors, nurses, therapists, surgeons, all see the very worst cases, with underlying medical causes including rare conditions, accompanying physical disease, mental illness, and treatments which affect weight control, weight problems which have been untreated for so long that extreme obesity and associated complications have developed.

    In that medical context a stable weight or a small loss is a triumph.

    According to the “Anchoring Rule”, there is a tendency is to see everything in relation to a known number or situation.

    In this medical context, the weight loss number is true, not ridiculous.
    However, the continual immersion in the severest, most intractable cases gives a feeling that weight loss in general is limited to maintaining weight or losing only small amounts. Here the “known number” for successful weight loss is very low.

    Anchored in this low number, doctors apply this low expectation to people who have weight problems not from all the medical conditions doctors are used to, but from solvable problems (lifestyle issues – not easy, but possible, to fix)

    People without all the complications that are the norm in a medical context can lose significant amounts of weight over time. That is people who are overweight or mildly obese – people the doctors don’t even want to see until there are really severe problems.

    If a medical professional tells a patient to expect only weight stabilization or a very small loss, that sets up an expectation which can in itself limit the amount of weight loss the patient and doctor will work for.
    If that limit is set by the specific medical issues for that particular patient, that is realistic.
    If that limit is set because the doctor or dietitian is anchored on the generally low average number for weight loss in severe cases, that does the patient a great disservice.

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  3. What an interesting post. Probably useful too!

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  4. I just cannot admire you enough for your thought process and how you connect things, coming up with ideas and solutions using analogies…hat tips to you…respectfully

    A reader …

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