Hugo Harper, Principal Advisor, The Behavioural Insights Team
Jul 17, 2017
For a long time obesity was categorised as a problem of information and willpower. If only people knew what was healthy for them, and had the mental resolve to stick to healthy choices, then we wouldn’t have a problem. Although education has an important role to play, unfortunately it doesn’t seem like it is sufficient: obesity levels have continued to rise in the face of repeated education initiatives.
This is because many of our decisions about the food we eat aren’t taken as active, deliberative choices but rather as instinctive responses, as if we were on auto-pilot. Although we might not like to admit it, our eating behaviour is hugely influenced by our environment, and our environment is currently designed to encourage eating. Findings from the behavioural sciences have consistently shown that what food people eat, and how much of it, is profoundly influenced by simple cues in their surroundings.
The size of the plates we eat from, the portions we’re given, the variety of food we’re presented with, the shelf position of food in stores, and the frequency with which we’re exposed to food advertisement can all increase the number of calories we consume. Importantly, this often happens without us consciously realising we’re eating more. For example simply presenting people with larger portion sizes increased the amount they eat by over 12%.
If we don’t even realise we’re eating more, then it becomes incredibly difficult for us to actively, consciously reduce our consumption. This is one of the reasons that dieters are so rarely successful.
Instead of weak willpower being to blame, it is this interaction between our psychology and our food environment that is responsible for the dramatic weight gain seen in recent decades. We now have easier access to a wider variety of highly palatable, energy dense food than ever before. This food is cheap and ubiquitously promoted, both in the media and in stores. Nowhere is this more apparent than in deprived urban areas, which have an increased density of fast-food outlets and corner stores. We need to have a more realistic, and sympathetic view of people’s eating behaviour, and design our schools, shops and cities with this in mind.
This may all sound very negative, but the flip side of much of our eating behaviour being automatic means that the solutions need not feel effortful. If we can make appropriate changes to our environment to facilitate healthier choices, and discourage less healthy ones, then we may be able to prevent (and perhaps even reverse) weight gain without requiring constant vigilance from individuals.
While behavioural science is generating many potentially effective interventions, many of these have only been delivered in isolation. Therefore the true potential to reduce people’s waistlines simply by re-designing their environment is yet to be realised. We’re incredibly excited to be working with Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity to implement interventions in Lambeth and Southwark. We believe that leveraging findings from behavioural science will provide a much needed boost in the fight against childhood obesity, and we look forward to putting these into practice with the help of the local community.