Something to watch: Why it’s so hard to make healthy decisions

It’s easy to become frustrated, particularly when trying to change behaviour, seeing people continuing to do what it is you are trying to deter them from doing.

Why do people continue to do the thing that makes them unhealthy, skint and stressed when healthier, cheaper and more rewarding alternatives exist? More perplexing still is when it is your own behaviour you are trying to change.

A gentle nudge…

It turns out that humans are irrational beings, but predictably so. Behavioural scientists and economists figured this out long ago and most of us will be aware of being ‘nudged’ in a certain direction at some point. The first example that comes to mind here in Cardiff is on bin day. You can put out as many green recycling bags as you like each week, but only as many black bags as you can fit in your wheelybin once per fortnight. The path of least resistance is therefore to recycle more.

In another example, the cost of car parking has been increasing steadily for a number of years now, with the clear intention of getting people to question whether spending over £10 a day on parking in the centre of Cardiff is such a good idea. It may seem odd, but people continue to do it, just as people continue to smoke, continue to drive without a seatbelt and continue to act predictably irrational.

At the moment, the path of least resistance is still the car. You can’t escape the advertising for new cars wherever you go; cars can be obtained easily at low monthly payments; the morning train is still like a mosh pit at a Pantera concert; and bike journeys are still challenging if you don’t live on the Taff Trail, or the temperature drops below freezing. Also, once we invest in a car, we tend to lean into it and use it for pretty much everything, even trips we could easily walk –the so-called sunk cost fallacy:

Individuals commit the sunk cost fallacy when they continue a behavior or endeavor as a result of previously invested resources (time, money or effort) (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). This fallacy, which is related to loss aversion and status quo bias, can also be viewed as bias resulting from an ongoing commitment.

via Sunk cost fallacy | behavioraleconomics.com | The BE Hub

Change takes time, but the status quo isn’t all that surprising. We still live in a place where the car is the easier option; where the bad food is only a tap away; where drive-through fast food restaurants exist; where the healthier options are demonised by the tabloids or more difficult than they should be.

It is one thing to nudge people into making better choices, but we need to be mindful that people aren’t also being violently shoved from the other direction at the same time.

Cycling or taking the bus to work; cooking and eating healthy food; and not drinking heavily on the weekend often feels like an act of defiance. It takes a tremendous amount of energy and effort to forge a different path and to stay with it, but then again, nothing worth having comes easy.

Further reading…

If you’d like to find out a bit more about why we humans act the way we do, I can heartily recommend a book by Richard Thaler called Misbehaving, which you can pick up from Waterstones, or from Amazon.

For what sounds like a very dry, dull subject, this is a surprisingly entertaining and relatable delve into why we do the things we do even when they make no logical sense.

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