The Power of a Simple Nudge

While grocery shopping, sometimes I find that it’s really hard to contain myself from buying chocolate, candies, or other junk foods, especially while waiting in the checkout lane. Even though I know that such foods are detrimental for my health, they look so appealing that I usually end up buying some. I am not rational, and the present satisfaction takes over the potential future health spillovers.

In this regard, I am, what is defined by Thaler and Sunstein, a Human, as opposed to an Econ, who makes his/her decisions optimally based on rational and unbiased factors. My choices and behaviors are biased and subject to the influence of environmental factors, even small details (like the chocolate next to the checkout). As a Human, my decisions are influenced by choice architects (grocery retailers, cafeteria managers, etc.) who decide the layout of our food environment. 

So what if the environment could be shaped in a way that would make healthful foods more appealing, and would help Humans like me make better decisions for their health without restricting the freedom to choose? It can be, and to achieve this goal, Thaler and Sunstein suggest the use of simple nudges. 

The use of nudges in food environments, such as cafeterias and grocery stores, has been found to be successful. The Wales Centre for Behaviour Change carried out two studies in which they shaped the environment in first, a campus shop, and second, a university cafeteria. Their objective was to increase the purchase (and hopefully the consumption) of healthy foods. By introducing green footprints in campus shops, guiding students to the fruit shelfs, and relocating and laying out fruit at the entry of the cafeteria at eye level, they saw that fruit sales rose drastically. Easy, isn’t it?

As Humans, we are often not rational and do not weigh the cost and benefits of our decisions and behaviors. Therefore, strategies that focus only on influencing our rational side might not always be successful. How many people smoke even though they know the serious health risks?

Moreover, Humans constantly experience temptation, and may have self-control issues when facing cravings, even if fully aware of the risks. Acting on the context that influences the making of a decision seems like a strategy that warrants further focus. 

Unfortunately for our health, selling junk foods at the checkout is a marketing strategy which brings retailers considerable revenue. Marketers and choice architects know that it’s an effective way to sell their products: 90% of us (Humans, that is) don’t stick to our grocery list and make impulse purchases.

Even so, some retailers such as Target have replaced candy with healthy snacks, and promote health among their employees. Over the short term, this may be risky, as healthy snacks are not likely to sell as well as candy. On a long-term basis, however, it may be a good investment. First, in showing customers that they care about their health and well-being, and second, in improving the health of their workers (and therefore lowering health insurance costs and increasing their work performance). 

According to the behavior science expert, James Clear, the candy industry uses visibility and willpower as key tools. They shape the food environment by placing their products in the checkout lane. This location has the highest visibility, and reaches the consumer at a time when their brain is tired of thinking and making decisions about food. 

As described so far, the junk food industry and retailers are experts in customer behaviors. They make us buy their products even though we rarely intend to purchase them and despite knowing their detrimental effects. How many of you write “candy bars” on your grocery list, after all? We are being manipulated, and it’s essential to be aware of that. 

Despite this observation, there is something to learn from the junk food industry’s strategies: by understanding their tactics, we can use them to influence our behavior in a positive way.

First, to change our eating habits for the better, we need to make more healthful options (fruit, for example.) more visible and appealing. Place them on the counter, this way you’ll be more likely to choose fruit over an out-of-sight candy bar. The time you’ll take to find the candy bar will allow you to consider your options and maybe become a bit more rational.

Second, when you want to change your habits, do it when your willpower is at its peak, not when you’re tired and maybe irritated. You surely know yourself better than anyone else.

Finally, don't expect too much of yourself. Start with small changes and proceed with one at the time. This way you’ll create a certain routine, which will in turn become an automatic response. 

Of course, you need to allow time to break old bad habits and build new ones. But never forget, you build a wall one brick at a time!


Barbara Ducry is a Swiss national and has a Bachelor’s degree in nursing. She just finished her Master’s degree in Global Health and Development at the University College London. She is passionate about global trade and food policies and their impact on the food environment, specifically on people’s diet, diet-related illness, and food security.

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