The 2-Minute Thought: Why Healthy Habits Are Hard: Because People, Like Rats, Are Energy Misers

Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behavior and Health Research Unit at Cambridge University, said this in an interview in Ipsos Mori’s publication on behavioral research, “Make It Simple”:

My favourite behavioural insight is that people, like rats, are energy misers – they conserve their finite energy by finding the easiest way to achieve a goal.  By slowing the speed with which lift doors close more people take the stairs; their goal of getting to a new floor is more readily achieved by using the stairs than the lift.  Likewise, people will more readily help themselves to the food that is nearer to them, regardless of food preferences.”

Marteau focuses on changing health-related behaviors for the better, and she is all about using the energy miser in us to make healthier choices more automatic.  In other words, she focuses on “nudges” or “choice architecture.”

According to the behavioral economists who first defined the concept, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a nudge is a way of changing people’s behavior without forbidding any options, but also making the “good” options easier and more automatic.  Putting healthy fruit at eye level is a nudge, they say.  Banning junk food is not. 

Likewise, making the elevator doors close more slowly is a nudge toward physical activity. It doesn’t prohibit anyone from taking the elevator, but it does make it more appealing to take the stairs.

The reason people are interested in nudges is that they might actually be effective in changing behavior – in contrast to the old method of providing more information on nutrition and health.  Better information often doesn’t change behavior.  People know fatty, sugary foods are bad, but they don’t avoid them.  They know physical activity is good, but they don’t exercise. 

The truth is our brains just don’t work like that.  We’re wired to make impulsive choices.  We live for now.  We have limited willpower.  We’re too busy to think clearly. 

Nudges use the natural wiring in our brains to point us toward healthier choices automatically.  Marteau explains that altering the properties or placement of objects, or changing stimuli in microenvironments can positively influence behavior with minimal conscious engagement.  For healthier living, we should be reducing the bad nudges (large default serving sizes for food and drink) and implementing the good ones (removing sweets from the checkout area of supermarkets). 

In a study on nudges for healthier eating, Christina Roberto and Ichiro Kawachi laid out the details of engineering good choices with levers like assortment, amount, accessibility, and order.  The next time you wish to create a nudge yourself, it’s worth considering their summary of natural biases about grouping and order:

  • In a pair, the first item has an advantage
  • In a set of three, the middle item has an advantage
  •  In a larger group, the first and last items have an advantage, but the last item has clear advantage if things are experienced in sequence.