Tag Archives: psychology

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



Loneliness may be deadlier than you think.


On the tragic evening of 23rd May 2014, Southern California’s Isla Vista witnessed a vicious killing spree, leaving 6 innocent victims dead and many injured. The California police have identified the perpetrator to be 22 year old Elliot Rodger, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Rodger allegedly shot himself after committing the crimes.

Just minutes before embarking on his rampage, Rodger emailed his parents a 137 page account of his own perceptions of his life, and the triggers that led up to the incident. Even a brief run through of the document will make evident that Rodger’s life was plagued with loneliness and isolation. While one cannot loosely claim that loneliness solely caused the killings (loneliness more likely interacted with other causal emotional states), what’s clear is that it was key amongst the various negative emotional states Rodger experienced.

Loneliness is also a recurring theme in Rodger’s “retribution videos”, which he published in the weeks that preceded the killings. In the videos, he talks about experiencing a life of loneliness and rejection ever since he hit puberty. This perceived isolation is mainly spoken about in the context of romantic relationships and his inability to find a girlfriend, unlike many of his peers. He blamed young girls for not paying attention to him and expressed anger towards young boys, whom he felt were undeserving of their beautiful girlfriends.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the videos, all of which mention a state of isolation:

“Hey, Elliot Rodger here. It’s truly a beautiful day, but as I’ve always said, a beautiful environment is the darkest hell, if you have to experience it alone. And sadly, I have been alone for a very long time.”

“For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me.”

“I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair.”         

The destructive power of loneliness has been studied in depth by neuroscientist John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago. Cacioppo argues that human beings are a social species that thrive on social connectedness, and the deprivation of such connectedness can have a number of adverse consequences in our lives. This deprivation needn’t be objective; it can also be perceived, as in the case of a college student like Rodger feeling isolated and lonely even when physically surrounded by his family and fellow UCSB students.

Research has found that loneliness can lead to a number of negative outcomes, including faster cognitive decline, depression and negativity. Cacioppo’s research suggests that the lonely view themselves to be passive victims of their social world and often feel unsafe, therefore heightening their own sensitivity towards threat. He believes that this increased attention to threat caused by loneliness can affect a lonely person even outside of their conscious awareness. For instance, lonely individuals are often conscious of a desire to connect/reconnect with people, but while attempting to do so, their social interactions are often plagued with attentional and memory biases that confirm their belief that they are in a threatening situation. Basically, if you’re subconsciously looking for danger, chances are that you’re more likely to see it. Press reports indicate that Rodger had made several attempts to connect with women in his early teens, almost all of which ended in drunken brawls and humiliating arguments; behaviour that is seemingly consistent with this theory.

Cacioppo’s research additionally suggests that not only is loneliness sad, but it can also be dangerous. It was found that when viewing negative social images (i.e. disturbing images of people) in an fMRI scanner, the brains of lonely people showed lesser activity in the temporal parietal region, which is responsible for empathy, suggesting that loneliness may adversely affect empathy.

Loneliness has also been linked with physical pain. A study conducted by Eisenberger and colleagues in 2003 suggests that the brain bases of loneliness and physical pain are the same. In this study, participants played a virtual ball toss game whilst in the fMRI scanner. Participants believed they were playing with two other anonymous players online. What each participant didn’t know is that they were actually playing a computer program, which was pre-set to ensure that the participant is included by the players only for the first two minutes of the game, and rejected in the remaining time. This social isolation and rejection showed increased activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with physical pain.

Social isolation can also make people feel cold…..quite literally.  In one study at The University of Toronto, researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Geoffrey Leonardelli first asked some subjects to remember times when they were socially excluded such as being left out of a group lunch meeting and others to remember times when they were socially included, such as being invited to one. Next, in a seemingly unrelated task, all the subjects were asked to estimate the temperature of the room. It was found that people remembering social exclusion rated the room to be chillier than people who remembered social inclusion. Their second study found that subjects who were socially isolated preferred warm food over cold, as measured by their ratings in a subsequent task.

“Loneliness is stigmatized….the psychological equivalent of a person being a loser in life or a weak person” John Cacioppo, at TEDxDesMoines, Sept.2013

The fact that isolation can affect our mental and physical state to such a large extent makes it an important area for further investigation on the clinical triggers that lead to violence. However, loneliness isn’t something human beings necessarily want to associate themselves with, which can make this emotional state difficult to measure in the laboratory; a lonely person often suppresses such emotions, causing them to withdraw from society even further. While Rodger openly spoke about his lonely state in his retribution videos, his written account suggests that his loneliness was suppressed in his early adulthood and was something he was greatly ashamed of at the time.

Additionally, loneliness is often trivialized in society. It is rare to see loneliness being addressed as an issue that is as dangerous as substance abuse or even obesity. Nevertheless, the empirical evidence on the negative consequences of loneliness suggests that it may be deadly to ignore its existence. The Elliot Rodger case is evidence of how the failure to adequately address and deal with a lonely mental state can contribute towards the development of violence, hate, and a desire to harm within a young boy who may have acted differently, had he not felt isolated.