Tag Archives: behaviour change

How Can Convenience Drive Healthy Behaviour?

school cafeteria

Changing human behaviour can be complex. No mathematical equation can determine how we will act from one situation to the next and this uncertainty presents an obvious challenge for marketers, policy makers and employers alike. Common practice has been to rely on assumptions about how people make decisions, based on what we intuitively know about human thinking. If there is one take away from social psychology though, it’s that your intuition, whether or not you’re a marketer with 15 years’ experience, can be extremely biased. Research in this area goes beyond just telling us that decision makers are irrational beings who’ve crossed the path of no return, by providing insights on the best possible way to learn from these biases, to change human behaviour in the desired direction. The beauty of these suggestions are that they are often simple and can be used by anyone, be it the experienced marketer who wants to optimize ad revenue or a mother who wants to influence her child to eat healthy.

Arguably the most popular and scalable of these principles is that of convenience. “Making it simple” or “making it easy” has proven to have a surprisingly large effect on behaviour. With regards to everyday decision making, if given an easy versus difficult path to choosing, we tend to pick the easier one and this bias determines our subsequent choices. This is not to say that “easy” is the inferior option….choosing the quick and easy path for everyday decisions is adaptive, because it can save us time and effort. However there are a number of hidden implications behind choosing easy and convenient options, and these implications can be used with both good and bad motives.

Consider yourself a customer at a supermarket, waiting in line at the cash counter to pay for your two hour long shopping rampage. You’re pretty hungry for a quick snack. Right next to you is a stand displaying delicious looking chocolate bars. You’re tempted to pick up the chocolate but then a health motive sets in, telling you to snack on fruit instead. But the fruit is all the way at the back of the store, you’re well in line to pay your bill, and the chocolate is right beside you… all you need to do is pick it up and pay for it! What would you (and most others) do?

We’d have to run an actual experiment to make any solid claims, but if a psychologist had to guess, they’d probably say you’d pick the chocolate. That’s because our brains are hard wired to pick convenient (and not to mention hedonistic) options. The power of using convenience to subtly drive behaviour change has been studied most commonly in the domain of health related behaviour. Here’s how this is done with two sets of important people : employees and school students.

The Workplace: If I had to pick the most famous (and probably effective) set of nudges used to change employee behaviour, it would be those conducted by Google’s PiLab. When its North American employees were gaining too many unwanted pounds, the search giant decided it was time to take action against the wretched calories (too many pounds can indeed cause a dip in productivity) by adopting insights from psychologists such as Cornell Food Lab’s Brian Wansink. Here are two of their interventions, which involved capitalizing on convenience:

1)  Making M&M consumption more laborious: By moving M&M’s from gravity bin dispensers to opaque jars, the PiLab ensured that eating M&M’s was not as convenient anymore….employees now had to go searching for them.

The result?

“We found that when we moved the M&Ms from those gravity bins to these containers — didn’t take them away, everything’s still there — in seven weeks, New York Googlers consumed 3.1 million fewer calories from M&Ms,” Jennifer Kurkosi, Google PiLab for abc news 

2)  Water vs. Soda: Moving water bottles in the coolers to eye level and sodas to the bottom shelf meant more employees chose a bottle of water over soda, when thirsty. It’s simple, really: water is now the more convenient option, while soda is the more effortful one.

The Lunchroom: Convenience has also been used to encourage healthier consumption in school cafeterias. A study by Wansink and colleagues found that increasing the convenience of eating fruit can increase the consumption of fruit! Slicing apples up using a fruit slicer increased apple sales by 71 percent in middle schools. These results were tempting for Forest Hill High School, which begun selling sliced fruit in plastic bags to their students. It was found that thenumber of students who selected fruit had increased by 18.4 percent, two weeks later.

Another health nudge experiment capitalizing on the principle of convenience was conducted by Denmark’s INudgeYou team. Their field experiment found that simply re-arranging a buffet can significantly impact the kind of food that is consumed. Read more here.

We live in a world where we are consistently bombarded by stimuli and choices. Limited time (yes, school goers have lives too) makes us prefer choosing options that reduce our cognitive load, options that are convenient. Our brains favour convenience more than we realise, and understanding this insight can give marketers, employers and school authorities advantage when designing health related behaviour change interventions.


Photo source : http://gimby.org/blogs/gimby-news-focus/20130423/uninspected-school-cafeterias-present-health-dangers



A Healthy Nudge.

HealthifyMe, an online fitness planner and calorie counter which helps people adhere to a health and weight loss regime, often sends its users email reminders to follow up on their health plan. I couldn’t help but notice that some of these reminders have behavioural nudges hidden in them. Here’s a peek at one of the emails, followed by my interpretation of the influence attempt:


1) Social Norms: “623 people tracked 4951 meals on HealthifyMe yesterday! We noticed you weren’t one of them”.

Using descriptive social norms to change behaviour is a commonly used behaviour change strategy. Telling people what others are doing influences them to conform to the norm or “join the herd”. According to this theory, an influence tactic which points out that many people in one’s community engage in undesirable behaviour can be particularly destructive (e.g. telling teenagers how many other teenagers in their school smoke is likely to increase smoking). On the other hand, pointing out a community’s desirable behaviour can be surprisingly effective.

By claiming that 623 people tracked meals on the website yesterday, and stressing that I clearly wasn’t one of them, HealthifyMe is not only activating feelings of guilt at failing to keep my healthy lifestyle commitment, it is also telling me that I’m not doing what the other members are doing: consciously working on my nutrition plan. I’m now in the “out-group”.

2)  Similarity: “Check out healthy choices that were logged on HealthifyMe yesterday by people just like you: Roti, Apple, Green tea without milk (sugar free), Lentil Dhal and boiled egg white.”

Human beings have a tendency to favour things (and people) that are similar to themselves. By telling members that people “just like them” have been searching for specific types of food/drink items, HealthifyMe is tapping into the similarity bias.  There’s a pattern here: while the social norms message above relates to a broad population of individuals who tracked meals on the website, the similarity message narrows it down to a specific sample of people who are “similar” to the user based on individual demographics and HealthifyMe search behaviour.

There’s another Nudge in there….leave a comment if you can spot it!