What Drives Subconscious Behavioral Change?


This post continues a discussion about a paper titled “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis,” published by the McKinsey Institute. The major topic is conscious and subconscious mechanisms, and we left off with the question of what drives subconscious behavioral change.

Two answers are: option availability and information architecture, which is variation in how information is presented. The authors also identify three forms of influence: choice architecture (variation in how choices are presented), priming (exposure to a specific stimuli), and social norms. One way or another, subconscious mechanisms are said to “reset the default.”

The authors state that “subconscious interventions share three important traits” and then go into quite meticulous detail about those traits. First is their nature, which is structural, in that they change the structure of the rules or of the material surroundings:

This can mean literal changes in the physical environment, such as closing off parts of a city to vehicular traffic. Or it can mean expanding or restricting choices — changing school canteen provisions or redefining the standard size of a coffee shop muffin.

Second, structural interventions are far-reaching and apply to a wide population:

For example, changes to school curricula apply to all schoolchildren. Changes to a food producer’s marketing practices have potential impact across consumer media and marketing channels.

As a result of this far reach, the authors say, “The per capita cost of subconscious interventions is far lower than that of conscious interventions targeted at individuals.” This is an important point but, as it turns out, not an immutable one.

The third characteristic of structural changes is that they tend to be long-lasting, or even permanent. The examples given are if a school system makes its meals more healthful (which may last until the next national election), or if a retailer or supplier reduces the intensity of the promotions offered for certain categories of food or drink.

The new status quo soon becomes the norm — consumers tend to quickly forget the old status quo and may be less likely to question new arrangements.

But then, after all this philosophical discussion, and after several reassurances that subconscious mechanisms work better, and that subconscious interventions have a lower per capita cost than targeted interventions, comes a seemingly contradictory caveat:

For those people who are already struggling with high BMI, subconscious interventions or changes to societal norms are very unlikely to reverse their condition. Targeted interventions are needed, even if they are not the most cost-effective.

At the same time, the authors say, for most of the individuals who are subjected to targeted interventions (such as education and motivational tools), even if that intervention induces a change in behavior, the treatment will still need to be supplemented by subconscious, structural changes.

So, to review, subconscious interventions are more effective than the conscious kind, and are also more cost-effective — except when they’re not. The authors state:

We should note that the two subconscious interventions that do not deliver high impact and cost-effectiveness — active transport and healthy meals — nevertheless deliver considerable benefits that do not relate specifically to weight, including improved mental and cardiovascular health, and they mitigate social inequality.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis,” Groupedebruges.eu, November 2014
Photo credit: luckybusiness/123RF Stock Photo

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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