Nudging our way to a healthier, happier life

Dr David Halpern

Dr David Halpern is a behavioural scientist and head of the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’. The ‘Nudge Unit’, was originally part of Number 10, and is now a social purpose company owned by the UK’s Cabinet Office, the innovation charity Nesta, and employees. The Team applies psychology to improve government policy and address the economic challenges facing society today. Here he examines the limitations of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in assessing the wellbeing of citizens and frames the relationship between wellbeing and productivity to demonstrate why feeling better means doing better.

You are about to walk into the supermarket. It’s not your favourite thing to do in the world, but you get a certain pleasure from it. Though you might not appreciate it, a modern supermarket is a masterpiece of behavioural engineering, and, in particular, of the behavioural principle of ‘attraction’. Even before you enter the supermarket, thoughts and impressions start to edge into your mind. Fresh. A little hungry. Though you can’t make them out individually, the splash of green from the fresh veg and fruit is clearly visible from ten paces away before you walked through the door. As you add them to your trolley, some part of your brain glows a little, too, the virtue of this healthy freshness you have collected.

Supermarkets have learnt to arrange fruit and vegetables as contrasting blocks of opposing colours – such as reds against greens – to make them stand out more dramatically. Most supermarkets have learnt to make sure that the fresh fruit and brightly colours ‘best buys’ catch your eye long before you even walk into the store, a call to your unconscious brain to help attract you inside, and to prime you for the fine goods you will find there. If you want to influence behaviour, you will often have to do something similar: to attract attention or some basic form of engagement before you have a chance to persuade or encourage.

We see this sort of nudging happening more and more: as part of a programme to get more people to move, VicHealth in Melbourne funded a spectacular painting of the staircase of the Southern Cross station, where around 100,000 commuters pass through each day. The artwork led to around 25% more people taking the stairs during rush hour, and 140% more during the rest of the day.

You can also use these techniques on yourself. Want to get yourself to exercise more? Don’t just do it as a chore, or something that you know that you ‘ought’ to do. Instead try to incorporate it into something that you would enjoy. This might mean walking with a friend or choosing routes to jog or cycle that take you past an attractive view. Studies have shown that kids are much more likely to engage in exercise, and persist with it, if it is presented as a chance to see the outside world or nature, than if it is presented as being health.

As for obesity, behaviour change is often cited as the way forward, but the success of individual level behaviour change programmes are patchy at best, as any serial dieter will tell you. At the core of the problem is that much eating is ‘mindless’ – we are just not consciously aware of how much we eat. People use a variety of external cues to decide how much to eat, and are generally surprisingly inattentive as to the actual amount of food consumed.

Introduce a distraction and we are truly lost. Think when you last bought some crisps or biscuits to eat while watching TV – the chances are you ate them all. If you put two biscuits on a plate, then you ate two biscuits; but if you brought the whole packet in, you ate the lot. The power of mindless eating is illustrated by how poor people are at keeping track of what they eat. Subjects consistently underestimate how much they eat, even when asked to keep a detailed diary. As if in a fugue state, we magically forget the mid-afternoon snacks and the treats we ate while watching our latest box set on TV.

Do you add up the calories, or salt and added sugar, in your shopping basket? I don’t and not many other people do. But what would happen if the supermarket did it for us? If your till or online shopping receipt told you how much fat, salt and added sugar there was in your basket, and how it compared to that of an average healthy shopper, might it change your choices? The evidence is that it would, particularly if you then said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Would you like us to prompt you for healthier choices?’

Retailers and producers, just like the car manufactures, will soon respond to such choices. If consumers start to shift to slightly healthier or smaller desserts, retailers will start to offer more of them and reduce the unhealthier versions. As consumers, we in turn will find ourselves confronted with healthier choices as producers reformulate. Many consumers will hardly notice the change at all. We’ll still be buying pizza and dessert, but these products will gradually become healthier, with less salt, less added sugar, and perhaps portions that are a little smaller.

The introduction of the UK’s drinks sugar levy illustrates the power of what we call a ‘double nudge’. The price increase is enough to make at least some consumers switch to similar products, even if they didn’t previous notice the sugar level (the first part of the nudge). But its real target is producers, who in anticipation of consumer behaviour reformulate their products. In the wake of the two-level sugar levy, manufacturers reformulated their drinks to take 11% of the sugar out – while overall sales actually increased.

The issue of figuring out what’s good for us, and then sticking to our good intentions, is not limited to our struggles to eat and live more healthily. A number of behavioural scientists have turned their attentions to an even bigger challenge: can we figure out, and make life choices, to make us happy?

While many experts acknowledge the shortcomings of GDP as a measure of societal well-being, they can’t see a better alternative. To many philosophers and policymakers, the measurement of subjective well-being seems so insurmountable as to render the discussion of it little more than idle gossip. Fortunately, more than half a century of work by psychologists and social researchers has gradually chipped away at this most basic of problems.

Even a cursory glance at the relationship between levels of subjective well-being and income strongly suggests that money does buy at least some happiness. The correlation between the two, at UK national level, is around 0.8 – or about as strong a relationship as is found in the social sciences. A similar shaped curvilinear relationship is found within countries, with the rich consistently reporting greater life satisfaction than the poor. Of course, correlation does not imply causation. It is likely that at least some of this relationship is meditated by other factors, such as better healthcare and education in richer countries or places. It is even plausible that some of the differences in income are partly driven by well-being, rather than the other way around, at least within some populations.

The curvilinear relationship between income and well-being is interpreted by most researchers as implying that, at the margin, an extra pound or dollar will bring more well-being for low- than high-income groups. What is perhaps less well rehearsed is the impact of the quality of work itself. There is a small industry of experts who argue that employers should seek to enhance the ‘engagement’ and satisfaction of staff in order to boost productivity and the performance of the firm.

Having a good relationship with your boss not only increases your work satisfaction, but dramatically boosts your life satisfaction, too. All this hints at how changes in the character of work may be one of the best ways of boosting life satisfaction in general. I think what we are starting to see, and that governments could catalyse, is prospective workers being able to find out more about the satisfaction, and frustrations, of existing workers. Then, firms that want to get the best workers will need to compete not just on salaries, and more on the aspects of the workplace that make all the difference between a job and life you love versus one you hate.

Let’s push this argument one step further. Much of our consumption is based on predictions about what will make us happy, and it turns out that we’re often not very good at these. But one thing that the internet and online feedback has enabled, combined with our deep human urge to share our experiences and learn what others think, is that it is starting to subtly reshape our choices. Better-informed consumers don’t just mean better functioning markets in the classical sense of lower prices or choosing lower fat desserts. It also implies the reshaping of markets more deeply.

Imagine a world in which consumers are more aware that experiences tend to boost their well-being more than things; where they choose forms of consumption that are more social; and where workers choose the firm with the best boss and most collegiate atmosphere over the highest salary. For businesses that embrace and anticipate this change, it will mean growth and success; for those that fail to notice or adapt, it will mean decline. The ‘de-shrouding’ of the drivers of well-being – all those quirky books, increasingly based on hard science of what really makes us happy – will reshape and direct markets. Forget GDP: better-informed consumers will reshape markets and economies for themselves. It is the ultimate double nudge.

Adapted from ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’ with thanks to David Halpern