Lessons From Obesity Research

When preferences are irrelevant

Posted Aug 12, 2012

I was at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting last weekend, where there was a solid schedule of programming related to environmental issues: papers examining ways of promoting more sustainable behavior, factors affecting the perception of climate change, and the emotional consequences of environmental disasters. A presentation I found particularly thought-provoking, though, was on an entirely different topic: obesity. Kelly Brownell of Yale University, a widely-known and respected expert, described why obesity should be considered a public health challenge rather than just an individual matter.

Although this may seem like a far cry from environmental topics, Dr. Brownell had some very relevant things to say about the way in which situational context structures behavioral choices. Plate size and portion size, which have both grown in recent decades, determine how much people eat. Social cues encourage people to eat more often (Taco Bell is currently promoting a “fourth meal"). So to address obesity, the primary focus should not be on increasing individual willpower, but on changing situational contingencies. For example, replace what behavioral economists call the “defaults.” The default “side” with your sandwich could be fruit or salad instead of chips or cookies; you could still order chips, but you would have to actively request them. Research has shown that such changes have a powerful impact on behavioral choices. 

I saw several connections between this and environmentalism. For one thing, mindless consumption is bad for the planet as well as for your waistline (or wallet). More generally, many of our unsustainable behaviors are not things that we deliberately choose, but merely default options. How many of us have been frustrated by clerks who insist on giving us plastic bags that we don’t want? How often have we driven from place to place, not because we were unwilling to walk, but because everyone else was driving or because the facilities discouraged pedestrian traffic? Replacing these contingencies with more optimal defaults could hugely reduce our environmental impact without constraining individual choice.

A third relevant message from Brownell’s talk was found in his title, referencing the courage to change. He was describing not just the courage of individuals, but also the courage of psychologists to get involved in public policy. Despite all the research that demonstrates the power of situations, psychologists are still more comfortable focusing on individual behavior change than advocating changes in policy. But some problems are too big for that approach.

Sometimes our approach to sustainability reminds me of that old joke about therapists: "How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change." We overemphasize what people want to do. We need to think about what they do regardless of what they want, simply because the situation encourages it.