The EAST Formula and Its Dark Side

The subject under discussion here recently has been the application of choice architecture and other principles used by the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement to encourage the consumption of healthful foods in the cafeterias of educational institutions.

The same basic ideas can be adapted for home use, especially in summer when kids are around more. This website about healthy food choices also offers links to slides, leaflets, and a webinar for parents that explains behavioral economics, and shows how to introduce simple and feasible strategies aimed at promoting healthier eating habits. It’s all about the nudge: the subtle, non-coercive intervention meant to gently steer people toward a certain course of action.

These operative principles are not limited to food-related areas of life, not at all. As Childhood Obesity News has mentioned, many forms of behavior can be molded by applying the tenets summarized by the acronym EAST: portray the desired behavior as Easy, Attractive, Social, and/or Timely.

For instance, we related how a study showed that rather than request that people “Please don’t cheat,” it is much more effective to ask, “Please don’t be a cheater.” The word Attractive in this context does not necessarily mean that people like it. It basically means, to draw the attention. One proven way of making an idea Attractive is to personalize it. When someone is directly asked to not be a cheater, that puts a name and a face on the hypothetical cheater — their name and face.

“Harnessing the power of defaults”

Obviously, objections could be made to a lot of the points and sub-points involved in the EAST formula. A widely used strategy is to make one possible choice more cumbersome. For instance, there is white milk on the table, and if you want the higher-calorie chocolate, you can go to the refrigerator and fetch it yourself. The unspoken message is, “Do things our way. Because we set it up so that doing it your way is annoying.” At which point, a lot of subjects will acquiesce.

The experts call this “harnessing the power of defaults,” and some say the concept has been too easily grasped by oligarchs throughout history. In a dictatorship, there is no chocolate milk in the fridge. The choices are either drink this, or go without.

When the tyrant’s directive is the default choice, with the alternative being violent death, governmental administration is greatly simplified. But it is morally questionable, which is why some critics object.

Choice architecture, in both the physical and metaphysical realms, is cheap to implement, and it often works. When the intervention’s design is subtle enough, children do not even realize that their perceived autonomy is being steered. To achieve compliance, the use of this psychological approach, rather than one of many possible other methods, all seems quite progressive and enlightened.

Critics, on the other hand, do not admit to the possibility of benign manipulation, and regard this whole area of expertise as nanny state baloney, mind control, and a scummy imitation of free will. When people carry around extra pounds, they resent the government butting in, even — and especially — when the mission is to save them from themselves.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies for Your Home: Meals and Snacks,” Extension.org, 09/09/19
Image by Alan Light/(CC BY 2.0)

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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.
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Presentations

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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