Don’t Tread On Us


This is the fourth in a series of posts about conscious and subconscious mechanisms that lead to behavioral change, based on a McKinsey Institute paper titled “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis.” We were talking about institutional and governmental efforts to change behavior, both on an individual level, and among the large segments of the population.

Now comes another problem, a large and powerful force at work in what can be called the psychic environment. Many humans tend to resist the efforts of missionaries who hope to induce them to change. Depending on the circumstances, this automatic and almost instinctive reaction may be either self-preservative, or perverse.

The authors say:

The advantage of subconscious mechanisms for behavioral change is that they do not rely on an individual’s deciding to change. By removing the need for willpower from the equation, subconscious interventions have a greater chance of succeeding.

People with a certain type of imagination find this promise alarming. To them, this whole idea of subconscious intervention smacks of programming, of brainwashing, of basically messing with people. If we accept that subconscious intervention is okay, it could justify many things, like dosing unwitting subjects with psychoactive drugs, or poisoning an inconvenient person. Or even foisting upon children a tsunami of advertising that they lack the skills and mental acuity to resist.

This subconscious mechanism trope is uncomfortably reminiscent of the ever-resented “nanny state” and the always-feared “tyranny.” But if people decide to accept it, the nanny state can be very effective in promoting health and preventing disease. Slipping things into the population’s drinks allows the population to be controlled or, more euphemistically, led.

The authors note:

The most striking outcome of the obesity abatement analysis is that classical targeted interventions such as education, weight-management programs, surgery, and pharmaceuticals do not have as much impact as changing the defaults in the food and beverage environment.

A tremendous argument for a soda tax

Subconscious interventions, according to the authors, all rely on “fundamental principles of behavioral economics”:

Most people accept the default option, are highly susceptible to “anchors” or suggestions of what norms are — such as, for instance, accepting an offer of a supersized portion — and follow social norms and behavior.

In the case of automatically saying yes to a supersized portion, the susceptibility to accepting the norm leads to a negative outcome — taking in more calories and adding fat to the body. An example of positive deference to a new norm is the reluctance of cigarette smokers to light up in environments where no one else is smoking. To not smoke in public places is the new norm, and people who still have the habit accept their pariah status and skulk away to an alley to indulge it.

In the example of a soda tax, there is evidence that, once the angst of campaigning, ferocious op-eds, and elections has subsided, it appears that people settle down and peaceably accept the new reality.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis,”, November 2014
Photo credit: vlakieste via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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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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