If you think losing weight is harder
than the Mensa exam, health researchers have good news: there is an easier way.
No starvation required.
Approximately 50 per cent of Australians
will have made at least one New Year's resolution, with the most popular one
being to lose weight. This statistic, reported by psychology researchers at the
University of Sydney, is closely followed by resolutions to stay fit and
healthy. Yet, the same research tells us we're finding change too hard. After
two weeks about 75 per cent of New Year's resolutions have been maintained.
This reduces to about 64 per cent after one month, and to 46 per cent after six
months. Frighteningly, the figures don't waver much from year to year,
suggesting that many of us are flogging the same old dead diet horse. Figures
show that Australians spend a collective $790 million a year on weight loss
efforts, and yet more of us are overweight than ever. Despite wishful thinking,
diets and pills don't work. So does it then come down to superhuman willpower?
Or is there a pill that will make us wake up and realize we don't like pizza
after all? Not exactly. But reality is almost as exciting, proposing a
new-evidence based behavioral tactic to push us towards weight loss minus
30-odd foot of grunt.
50 per cent of Australians will have made at least one New Year's resolution,
with the most popular one being to lose weight.
What is nudge theory?
Nudge Theory, developed by renowned US
economist and behavioral scientist Professor Richard Thaler, is about
encouraging or 'nudging' people to make healthier lifestyle choices. Rather
than trying to overtly change people's behavior, the idea is to subtly direct
people down a particular path by altering their environment. Thaler states that
a nudge is "anything that influences our choices". Think a Coles
manager shafting Cherry Ripes from the checkouts (we're not saying they would,
but go with us on this); this slight nudge in the environment would logically
reduce the number of people consuming chocolate by making it more difficult to
obtain. The theory goes that by nudging our environments healthier, we can
effectively trick ourselves into healthier behaviors, whether trading ice cream
for a Granny Smith or walking an extra tram stop. This is one time humans' yen
for habit and ritual call it 'laziness' if you will can work in our favor.
How nudges help with weight loss
Nudges have traditionally been used by
governments to influence public health. For example, in Stockholm, Volkswagen
car manufacturers installed piano stairs alongside subway escalators to
encourage people to walk and exercise more. Interestingly, 66 per cent more
commuters chose the stairs over the escalators all it took was a nudge,
something to make it more appealing to choose the healthier option. And late
last year the Aussie government hired a 'nudge theory expert' to come up with
innovative ways to direct its citizens. With initiatives like this, it is
perhaps no wonder that nudge theory is being called 'fun theory'. Benefits
might take some time to reap, however, once achieved these perks are there to
stay as your new behaviors become habits and you no longer need that nudge to
keep yourself on track.
have traditionally been used by governments to influence public health.
The kicker is that a nudge needs to be in
the background. Research has shown that we are much more likely to maintain
healthy behaviors that are our own choice, as opposed to being influenced by
others, and if our brains get a sniff of coercion, they may well rebel Supernanny
tantrum style. Solution? On an individual level, we can set our nudges to
encourage behaviors that move us towards certain outcomes. (Like, say, the 65
How to think like a nudge
We have two ways of thinking - an automatic
system and a reflective system. Automatic thinking is effortless and tends to
govern our unhealthy choices. Just think about how much popcorn you can get
through at the cinema you have the popcorn in front of you and don't have to
think about what to eat, when to eat, or even if to eat your hand reaches in,
grabs the popcorn, and goes straight up to your mouth without a second thought.
Reflective thinking, on the other hand, requires effort and awareness. An
example is when you have a celebratory meal to plan and prepare for - you weigh
up your choices and consider what everyone will enjoy and whether you can
produce the desired result on the day. This slower level thinking gives you
chance to implement nudges when and where needed.
slower level thinking gives you chance to implement nudges when and where
We all have deeply ingrained unhealthy
lifestyle habits that are not easy to change because they are part of our
automatic thinking and behavior. To overcome habit-induced barriers to healthy
living, reflective thinking is needed. We need to make a conscious effort to do
something different, such as eat an extra piece of fruit a day. In other words,
nudges make us reflect and think before we act, which is fundamental when on a
diet or trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle.