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Can behavioral science help us live healthier?

Dan Ariely // WTF Health

Dan ArielyDan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

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Dan Ariely, noted behavioral economist, Duke University professor and author of seminal books such as “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions,” recently launched an app called Shapa that links a weight scale to a smartphone.

The scale has a twist: It doesn’t display your weight when you step on it. Not surprisingly, this is based on behavioral research Shapa’s data show that it’s working to help people shed pounds. How else could behavioral science nudge humans toward healthier lifestyles?

GenPop: Your question asked about a smartphone that would stop working if the user didn’t behave in a healthy way. Why did you want to ask that?

Dan Ariely: How do we get people to behave in their long-term best interests? One approach is to make the right behavior more fun – something people refer to as gamification. Another approach is making not doing something more painful. You take away something that people really want, like money. What we know in general is that punishment is often more powerful than the reward. The phone is a really interesting thing because it is both the mechanism for the measurement of the behavior and also the potential punishment of the behavior.

People are willing to be punished for non-healthy behaviorSource: Ipsos survey conducted between May 17 and 21, 2018 among 1,890 adults in the U.S.

GenPop: The survey showed that about half of the people surveyed want a phone like that.

Ariely: In general, we can classify people into sophisticates and naïves. The first person who we call naive says, “If my phone vibrates when I drive, I will have no problem not looking at it.” With the “type one” sophisticated person they know that there will be a problem if their phone vibrates when they drive. They acknowledge, “There’s a real chance I would look at it and risk myself and other people.” And then the “type two” sophisticated person says, “When my phone vibrates I will be tempted, and I’m willing to create a cost for myself so that I’m not going to behave badly.” That’s really what we tested: What is the percentage of people who are both sophisticated and willing to do something that would limit their future freedom in order to behave better?

GenPop: People eat cheeseburgers, knowing they are not healthy. Why do we make bad choices?

Ariely: There are lots of reasons we make bad decisions, chief among them is our emotions. Our emotions get invoked, not based on things that are in our long-term future but based on things that are in the present. We have good ideas about what we want to do in principle, but in the moment, we get tempted. Time after time after time. And as we get tempted we make decisions that are not aligned with our long-term interests.

GenPop: So we need to better control our emotional attachment to cheeseburgers?

Ariely: The world around us is trying to use our emotions against us. One of the principles in behavioral economics is that we make decisions as a function of the environment we’re in. The environment includes every coffee shop and every supermarket and every app and every online store and so on. Now ask yourself, what are the people in your environment interested in? How many of them are interested in your long-term well-being? The answer is almost nobody is interested in your long-term well-being. Our world is tempting us and it’s working on temptation and it’s getting better at it.

GenPop: How can behavioral science help us be healthier?

Ariely: First of all, we need to understand the magnitude of the problem. Because if we are naive, going back to the definition from earlier, and we don’t understand that we’ll get tempted and fail then we’ll just fail. So partially our goal is to help people understand the extent to which we fail. The second thing is to help us create mechanisms to fight temptation. Of course, the first mechanism is just not to be tempted.

GenPop: What else can we do?

Ariely: Habits are ways for us not to think about each behavior separately but to have a rule that says this is what we do.

GenPop: Do diets work?

Ariely: Mostly, diets don’t work unless they’re accompanied by very strict and very clear rules such as no soft drinks or no desserts.

GenPop: Do calorie counts on restaurant menus make a difference?

Ariely: Sadly, almost zero difference. The shocking thing is that despite the evidence that they don’t work, people still put them on menus and believe that they will work.

GenPop: Why is that?

Ariely: There’s a big difference between knowing something and acting on it. And that’s true in health and financial decision making and all around. Calories are really not about revealing new information. And there are very few cases in human history where just learning something and knowing something has actually changed behavior.

GenPop: Your Shapa scale, which, among other things, does not actually display your weight when you step on it, has some very interesting behavioral science behind it. Why is stepping on a scale in the morning versus the evening helpful?

Ariely: Stepping on a scale is an activity that reminds you that you want to be healthy. If you do it in the morning you eat a little bit less for breakfast. If you do it at night you just go to sleep and by the morning you forget about the whole thing.

GenPop: Why does putting healthy snacks at eye level in the fridge or pantry help?

Ariely: The reality is that the laziness is a very good description of human nature. And I don’t mean it in a bad way, but the reality is that we don’t stray much from the path of least resistance. We don’t look for the difficult ways to do things, we look for the easiest. When you open the refrigerator, what’s the first thing you see? It’s easiest to get whatever is at eye level.

GenPop: Do you think in the future that we’ll get any better at behaving in a healthy way?

Ariely: Most likely worse. Imagine you had to run a company and you could appeal to people’s logic or their emotions. Which one would you pick?

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