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Changing behaviour by design

Source: Public Sector Executive March/April 2013

Ed Gardiner, behavioural design lead at Warwick Business School, discusses the power of behavioural design in the fight to tackle obesity.

In February 2013, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC) published ‘Measuring up: The medical profession’s prescription for the nation’s obesity crisis’ highlighting the stark challenge the UK faces. The problem is well-documented and the consequences frighteningly clear but even more apparent is how little we know about why people make the eating decisions they do.

Column inches galore are dedicated to our expanding waistlines, so why do people still choose foods high in salt, fat and sugar? Why do they cave in to the latest treat or make a beeline for the snacks aisle? More importantly, how can we design better products, services and places to change these behaviours? How can we create a social movement for healthy eating or turn the problem into new commercial opportunities?

These questions are at the heart of the Behavioural Design Lab – a new collaboration between Warwick Business School and the Design Council combining behavioural science with design-thinking to tackle complex societal issues. WBS has the leading centre for behavioural science in Europe, producing a wealth of research that skilled designers can use to create products and services that genuinely improve our lives.

Of the 10 key recommendations in the AoMRC report, three are under the banner of ‘making the healthy choice the easy choice’: a sugary drinks tax, food labelling, and the built environment.

Predictably, the sugary drink tax – or ‘fat tax’ – grabbed the headlines and prompted a backlash from the soft drinks industry, but the evidence for labelling is also mixed.

Although both recommendations aim to support people in making healthy choices, they are based on the assumption that people who have chosen to eat unhealthy foods have made an active decision to do so. We compute intention from action and believe that people are either unable or unwilling to make healthy choices. This leads to a call for more information (food labelling) or disincentives (taxation) to change behaviour.

Better information is a good thing – we should know what we’re eating – but information alone is not enough to change behaviour. A study of New York City’s law on calorie labelling found that although nine out of 10 of customers said they had made healthier choices as a result, the receipts revealed that people had actually ordered more on average than before the law came into effect.

For too long, organisations have relied on an outdated view that people are governed by a rational self-interest with little regard for the wellbeing of others. Research by Brian Wansink at Cornell University showed that participants made on average 226 food decisions a day. We simply do not have the time, energy and attention to make sure they’re all optimal, leading to behaviours that sometimes appear self-defeating.

If we’re going to tackle the obesity crisis, not only do we need to research how and why people actually make decisions, but use the design of products, services and places to help us overcome the barriers or go with the grain of making better decisions. Simple scientific experiments can reveal the ‘basic principles’ from which new approaches can be better designed and tested in the field.

Change can only happen collaboratively though. The lines between the public, private and voluntary sectors are blurring and social enterprise is now entwined with commercial, political and charitable goals. A tax on sugary drinks may work but it immediately isolates the food and retail industry, the set of organisations closest to the consumer and the behaviours we want to affect. The average supermarket stocks over 50,000 products, so no wonder our habits often trump any intention to eat healthily.

The problem of excessive consumption should be reframed as an opportunity to disrupt the market, going beyond education and awareness. Echoing the recommendation on the built environment, the Design Council has recently launched the ‘Active by Design’ programme to encourage greater levels of daily physical activity in buildings and urban open spaces, and greater access to healthy food.

By grounding these ideas in the science of behaviour and focusing on people’s real needs – whether they are fully aware or not – we can create positive impact on the issues faced by the UK.

Behavioural design can deliver real change. It is capable of physically changing the way people think, feel and behave for the better.

About the author

Ed Gardiner is Behavioural Design Lead at Warwick Business School and the Design Council, responsible for running the Behavioural Design Lab.

He is also part of the ‘Create’ programme at WBS, exploring new teaching and research opportunities on the role of design and creativity in business.


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