Dieting is all too often approached as an all or nothing behavior adoption – you’re required to make drastic changes to the food you buy, prepare, and eat virtually over-night. Plenty of behaviorists have noted the problems with this approach and advocate for something different: behavioral “nudges” that help you overcome your ingrained food behaviors and lead you to making better choices.
“Nudging” is a key concept in the field of behavioral economics, brought to cultural prominence by Richard Thaler in the book titled, of course, Nudge. It’s defined as “a technique that alters a person’s decision-making context without removing options or changing the incentives in order to promote choice and behavior in accordance to their own preferences” – in other words, it’s the idea that small behavioral changes can lead to successful outcomes. Using these nudges to engineer our choice architecture can make it easier to avoid tempting but ultimately unhealthy and dysfunctional choices. When it comes to making positive diet and exercise changes, several “nudges” have gained prominence:
- Diet & Exercise Wagers – These bets, in which someone agrees to put up a certain amount of money if they don’t reach a pre-determined goal or adhere to a new diet or exercise habit, are built on the behavioral economics principle of “loss aversion” – that is, many people would rather avoid losing something than getting a reward. While not especially intrinsically motivated, this tactic can be helpful to people who self-identify as particularly loss averse. If you’re the type of person who never buys anything unless it’s on sale, this method might work for you!
- Healthy Food Proximity – Sometimes, just making healthier food options more immediately apparent in your environment can encourage you to change. After all, when you see them right there in front of you, it’s hard to think about or want to do anything else. Policy makers in the US and UK have looked into creating nudges as simple as displaying fruit and vegetables at eye level.
- Defaulting to Healthy – Making a healthy choice something you have to opt out of rather than actively choose can be extremely helpful as well. The choice essentially has already been made for you, but rather than forced upon you, you still have the option to eat something else – it just requires more effort. In fact, Disney World adopted this practice and saw dramatic changes in consumer behavior
What’s important to distinguish about nudges is that they’re tactics that can be used to optimize choice. They’re not hyper overt rules meant to dictate what you should or shouldn’t do; they’re parameters and influences that keep your sense of free will intact, but accommodate the biases and irrational behaviors that prevent you from making the best, healthiest decisions. So when trying to adopt healthier habits, rather than imposing strict guidelines on yourself, think about ways you can construct your everyday environment to gently push you in the right direction.