This post ties up a couple of different strands. Childhood Obesity News talked about nudge theory, the idea that because of human cognitive biases, subtle and non-coercive actions can have large effects. This is good news for parents whose goal is to civilize children. But when the government sets up behavior-shaping programs, some people are uncomfortable with the concept, while others may become over-enthusiastic.
Then we went back over the difficulties encountered during the last revision of the official U.S. Dietary guidelines (which affect much of the world) and their pictorial counterpart, the MyPlate graphic.
In his Forbes article, Andrea Renda describes nudging as “a way to gently steer individuals towards specific forms of behaviour by engaging in so-called ‘choice architecture’.” Nobody in the field could legitimately claim there is anything new here. Marketing has existed forever, and so has public policy.
But never before has such an effort been made to employ one in the service of the other. Renda says:
The same techniques that had been applied for decades by corporations to conquer end users’ attention and willingness to pay were now being put to use in public policy, with a view to improving social welfare and policy effectiveness.
He describes two very recognizable forms of nudging. One type intends to help people act in ways that are more desirable for themselves, and the other attempts to steer people toward acting in ways that are better for society as a whole, rather than the self. To put it another way:
Conceptually, these are two different approaches: one aims at de-biasing individual decision-making, the other at steering individual decisions towards outcomes that are determined by government with no reference to the individual’s own welfare.
Renda mentions “the myplate.gov approach to indicating how to reach a balanced and healthy diet” as an example of the first kind of nudge, the one meant to promote greater individual self-actualization. Why is a mystery, because it almost seems more like the second type.
It could be argued, and often is, that if obesity can be reduced, the budgets of every healthcare system in the world will be considerably relieved. That is definitely a universal good.
At any rate, Renda admits that “the contribution that behavioral economics and nudging have made to public policy is still unclear.” He writes:
For example, while in the short term modifying the order in which food is presented in a canteen might lead to increased consumption of healthy food over junk food, it is unclear whether individuals end up maintaining these new consumption choices over time, or simply learn where to find the food they wanted in the first place, thus neutralizing the nudge.
Here is a thought. Laboratory rodents navigate mazes and withstand shocks to procure snacks. The single-celled organism Physarum polycephalum, or slime mold, can learn to overcome artificial barriers and find the food it wants. So if middle-school students bypass the slightly inconvenient or hidden junk foods, and choose healthful ones, we can probably assume that they are doing it on purpose. Renda goes on to say:
Similar findings have been highlighted in healthcare, for example in addressing obesity.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!