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A nudge toward better health?

Posted on February 12, 2015 by Taber Times

Health officials and government policymakers have been trying to come up with a way to stop the trend of rising obesity rates and the accompanying health problems.

Concerns about the decreasing health of North Americans and the growing pressure on the health-care system have led to ideas ranging from proposals for warning labels on soda pop to calls to institute a tax on junk food. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg even attempted to legislate the size of sugary soft drinks that could be sold, but the bid was struck down in court last summer.

A new report from the Conference Board of Canada offers another way to promote healthier lifestyles. Instead of trying to force them on people, the Conference Board suggests a gentle nudge in the right direction.

The report, titled “Behavioural Economic and Health: Nudging Toward a Culture of Wellness,” promotes the idea of tapping into human behaviour theories to encourage people to make better choices.

“Nudging is a school of thought and policy that draws on the insights of behavioural economics and cognitive psychology,” Gabriela Prada, director of Health Innovation, Policy and Evaluation at the Conference Board, said in a news release. “By paying attention to certain cues within our environments, our government and employers, and even our parents and teachers, can nudge us to choose healthier and better-rounded lifestyles.”

Actually, the “nudging” idea is nothing new. Advertisers use it all the time to encourage people to buy certain products or services. Governments use it, too, in an effort to build support for particular policies or to win re-election.

Most of us have likely used the technique from time to time to elicit a certain action or response from someone. It’s just that we don’t use the term “nudging” for what is essentially the power of suggestion (some might say manipulation). We’re exposed to it from the time we’re infants and Mom goes “Mmmmmm, yum” as she pushes a spoonful of strained peas toward her baby’s mouth.

The Conference Board says nudging techniques can be used to promote healthy, active living, pointing out methods such as putting pictures of produce on shopping carts as a way to boost purchases of fruits and vegetables. The report also suggests labelling products with traffic-light colours to indicate nutritional value as an alternative to listing caloric details, which many consumers probably don’t take the time to read anyway. A “green light” label would be a quick and clear indication to shoppers that a particular product is better for them than the “red light” option.

Canada has been slow to get on the “nudging” bandwagon, says the report, noting that the United States and United Kingdom have been moving ahead with a “nudge agenda” in recent years. The Conference Board says U.S. President Barack Obama, in 2009, made Cass Sunstein, co-author of the 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron established the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the “Nudge Unit,” within the cabinet office.

The Conference Board report says nudges are easy and inexpensive to implement, and many have proven to be effective.

If nudging Canadians can work to encourage healthier lifestyles, the potential benefits are certainly worth the effort, and are more likely to achieve success than trying to push people to make healthy choices.

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