The Psychology of Smarter Lunchrooms

We have seen how a perceived need to mold people’s behavior — even for quite innocent and beneficial purposes — can easily conflict with the very human resistance against being molded. Motives that we label good or evil can both make use of psychological tendencies. We discussed the multi-faceted tool known as the EAST formula.

People can often be persuaded to act in certain ways by being shown that the desired behavior is Easy, Attractive, Social, and/or Timely. The “social” motive is a multifaceted one with a lot of possible uses. The social drive manifests in superficial ways, like the desire to be trendy. Often, the result does not make a lick of difference in any meaningful way, and is inconsequential. A Little Mermaid lunchbox and a Mario Brothers lunchbox both fulfill the object’s function of bringing nutritious food to school for a child.

The social drive is also potentially dangerous, in elemental ways that can harm both the individual and society. It plays out in successively deeper waters, moving from family solidarity, to public-spiritedness, to nationalism, to jingoism, to xenophobia, and onward to even more destructive phenomena.

Bullying of overweight and obese people, for instance, is an example of the social drive gone sour. We do not want abusive behavior toward obese people to be a cultural norm. And yet, it is disturbingly easy to persuade people to buy into the bully mindset, and to bond over engaging in ugly behavior.

Department of FOMO

Another branch of the enormous social realm is FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. This gussied-up version of pack mentality has always been active, of course. At a certain point in history, monarchs thought it was cool to send massive armies halfway around the world to aggress on strangers. The king offered social currency to the lords: “Listen, Duke, just go and kill people for the glory of my kingdom, and when you return I will bestow upon you a new job title. How does Viceroy sound?” Fear of missing out on juicy rewards is a strong motivator.

Of course, each nobleman was obliged to bring along an army made up of his own serfs. Now the territory shifts, and we are in a different part of the EAST Formula. The relation of the landowner to the serfs is more like the parent-child relationship. The power is there to narrow down the illusion of choice to no choice at all. In many families and cultures, children are not entitled to be gently persuaded. Like serfs, they are not eligible for social currency.

Illusion of choice very thin

In the olden days, no landlord needed to take the trouble to convince the peasants that crusading is the hip thing to do. With lower-class people, the persuaders can bring in the big gun: the Power of Defaults, which comes under the E in EAST Formula, and stands for Easy. For example, if voting is the desired behavior, a government makes voting easy with automatic registration or some other method.

In the Middle Ages, the male serfs were expected to automatically join the boss’s army. Horrible as the experience might be, through the Power of Defaults, it would be easier than the alternative. Because the nobleman could say, “Of course you don’t have to fight. You stay here and till the land. Instead, your wife and daughters will come along as hostesses at the Officers’ Club.”

The dictator; or the government agency in charge of molding the behavior of others to prevent obesity; or the parent at home — all possess a huge advantage. Whatever they don’t want others to do, they can put roadblocks in the way. The step they do not want people to take is made less easy, and a lot of people don’t take it.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smarter Lunchrooms Strategies for Your Home: Meals and Snacks,”, 09/09/19
Image by The Behavioral Insights Team

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

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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