The further the basic principles behind the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement are looked into, the more intricacy they reveal. It all has to do with social engineering, which is like fire, or a hammer — a tool that can be used for good or ill. The first layer of complication is, whose definition of “good” does a particular act of social engineering serve?
In the area of childhood obesity, good is the reduction of obesity, which can be accomplished in a number of ways. The most obvious, of course, is the totalitarian, authoritarian approach — only providing a very small amount of food, and/or low-calorie food. This method works exclusively in particular settings and circumstances, like prison camp.
In a free society, or a relatively free segment of society, social engineering needs a gentler face, with the objective of shaping people’s behavior while providing them with the illusion of autonomy. Childhood Obesity News has looked at the science of “choice architecture.”
Varying degrees of choice architecture can be effective in dealing with kids of different ages. With a very young child, a parent can sometimes get away with, “Do you want peas or corn?” Not even the sharpest lawyer could deny that a choice has been offered. And yet, both are nutritious vegetables.
Shall we shop for back-to-school clothes at Target or Walmart? Neither one of those establishments is Bergdorf Goodman — and yet, the element of choice is undeniably present. Some children never vibe with this approach. Still, it is certainly worth trying.
Getting things done
The Behavioural Insights Team, a branch of government in the United Kingdom, pioneered the concept of EAST, and here is how that acronym breaks down: To encourage a behavior, make it Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely. How could this be adopted to a parenting situation? Let’s take white milk versus chocolate milk, and apply each EAST sub-principle, beginning with “the power of defaults.”
A parent could set a glass of white milk on the table, and the easiest thing for a child to do would be to drink it. Unfortunately, kids being what they are, there might be a request for chocolate milk, which is in the refrigerator. Then, a parent could say, “Okay, if you will please take the glass to the refrigerator, pour the white milk back in the bottle, pour chocolate into your glass instead, and bring it back to the table.”
That’s what the experts call the “hassle factor.” It is so much easier to accept the default white milk. According to EAST, “most gyms in the UK will ask you to pay through monthly automated transfers from your bank account so that the default is that you continue paying.”
The other elements
People are attracted by pictures, color and personalization. And by rewards. In a lunchroom setting, dishes are made attractive by giving them quirky, creative names. At home, if a child has a white-milk mug with her or his photo on it, or a drawing of a favorite cartoon character, will that child be content with the default white milk inside? Again, with kids’ health at stake, any strategy is worth trying.
To make a phenomenon social, show people that others are doing it. It’s decent, it’s normal, it’s cool. Children have a golden age of being impressionable, when they want to imitate everything that grownups or bigger children do. The ability to optimize and maximize that stage is a stellar parental talent.
“Timely”can mean a lot of different things. For instance, if a child is very thirsty, she or he might gulp down white milk without demur. At another time, when uncomfortable dehydration is not an issue, the same child might insist on chocolate milk, and be willing to wait for it. Or fight for it.
Rewards must also be timely. Most people, most of the time, will shun delayed gratification and opt for the immediate kind.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!
Source: “EAST Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights,” BehaviouralInsights.co.uk, undated
Image by The Behavioral Insights Team