Healthy living: easier said than done

An interesting report from the RSA published in December uses insights from behavioural science to understand why people struggle to adopt healthy behaviours, including healthy eating practices, even when they have the best of intentions.

The authors suggest that healthy behaviour is generally seen as being associated with immediate loss. In contrast, the consequences of not behaving healthily are distant losses — they will be felt by a future self; possibly. So if I’m to eat healthily, I must deprive myself of things I want and use more of my time and money on food. If I do, I might prevent myself becoming diabetic or developing heart disease at some point in the future.

The concrete, immediate losses are more salient and when linked with tendencies such as habit: (always having biscuits with tea); optimism (thinking that future ill health is less likely than it is); empathy gap (not appreciating how significant poor health would be); and myopia (not thinking far ahead); tend to drive behaviour.

Applying such behavioural insights also suggests ways of encouraging healthy behaviour. Suggestions including framing healthy behaviour as gains, which might include:

  • concentrating on adding fruit, vegetables and water to one’s diet rather than on what not to eat, with the intention that the healthy addition will crowd some of the less healthy ones out.
  • adding attention to meals to change the quality of our eating experience – something that tends to ensure that we eat less.

Other techniques discussed include commitment devices (self imposed ways of encouraging ourselves to achieve a goal), temptation bundling (pairing a should behaviour with a desired behaviour) and specific implementation plans.

This is where you can find the full report: Easier Said Than Done Why we struggle with healthy behaviours and what to do about it.




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