The science of choice: Strategies for better health habits

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College life is all about freedom and independence. Your decisions—including when to work out and what to eat—are finally your own…right?

Maybe not.

Our “decisions” are influenced by environmental cues far beyond our own needs, control, and even consciousness, according to decades of research. “[C]hoices depend, in part, on the way in which problems are stated,” wrote Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their bestselling book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Penguin, 2009).

Default behaviors

This concept, which behavioral economists call “choice architecture,” helps explains why we tend to default to the easiest or most visible course of action. Choice architecture contributes to much of what we do, including what we eat, how much physical activity we get, and other behaviors.

“We often make decisions in the moment, therefore we are influenced by the options available at any given time,” says Dr. Ellen Magenheim, chair of the department of economics at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. If you’ve ever made an impulsive candy purchase at the check-out line, that’s choice architecture working against you. Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to legislate the sizes of sodas at New York movie theaters was based in evidence that we gravitate to the middle size. For most of us, a smaller middle size will serve just as well.

Harness the power of choice architecture

“If you want someone to do something, you should make it as easy as possible,” says Dr. Magenheim. If you want yourself to do something, make it easier by tweaking your own environment.

Choice architecture influences behavior without mandating or banning particular options. “A nudge works best when it is in the background,” says Dr. David R. Just, professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, New York. “Nudges should seem meaningless on the surface.”

Choice architecture on campus

Health officials are increasingly looking for environmental tweaks that can nudge us effortlessly towards healthier behaviors. On college campuses, that means interventions like these:

  • Holding a flu shot clinic outside the campus dining hall minimizes the time and effort between thinking about the flu shot and getting it, says Dr. Magenheim. Result: More students get flu shots.
  • Displaying fruit more prominently in the campus cafeteria signals to students “eat these” and “this is a destination,” says Dr. Just. Result: Display changes have driven a 100 percent increase in fruit consumption.
Become the architect of your own health choices
These four steps can help you steer yourself towards easy healthier behaviors.
  1. Make a plan. E.g., if your dining hall, restaurant, or convenience store has limited healthy options, figure out your selection strategy before you go in.
  2. Spend time with people who share your health awareness and goals. We tend to gravitate towards the health habits of our peers.
  3. Limit your choices. E.g., if you are overwhelmed choosing between hundreds of fitness apps for your phone, reduce the options. Your decision will become easier.
  4. Become an advocate. If you feel that your campus’s healthy lifestyle options are limited, join or create a student advocacy group and collaborate with administrators on improvements (e.g., changing the content of campus vending machines).
Strategies for effortlessly healthier food choices
  • Pick up a small plate. A small salad plate can help with portion control. You do not have to pick up a large dinner plate just because they are located at the cafeteria entrance.
  • Choose a place that encourages healthy eating. If you have access to multiple dining locations, review their layouts and select the one that makes healthy eating easier—e.g., by approaching the veggie selection first.
  • Sit with your back to the food lines. If you see food you’ll be more likely to get up for additional helpings.
  • Buy one type of snack at a time. E.g., more varieties of cookies will lead to more consumption.
  • At home, make less healthy foods invisible and inaccessible. Organize the kitchen to minimize negative cues. If you have tended to stash the junk foods in a particular spot, switching things around can interrupt unhealthy habits.
  • Re-organize your refrigerator. Make sure that when you open it you’re looking at fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-sugar yogurts, and other healthy options. Consign high fat foods to the lowest shelf at the back.

Get help or find out more

Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness: Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008).
Yale University Press: Newhaven, Connecticut.

Smarter lunchrooms movement: Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program

Food and Brand Lab: Cornell University

Applying behavioral economics to behavior: Ideas42