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Nudging meat-eaters to choose veggie options

A new way of looking at how we behave – and what it means for vegetarians.

Published in The Vegetarian magazine - Winter 2017


nudge theory

In October, it was announced the 'father of nudge theory', Richard Thaler won the 2017 Nobel prize in economics. Nudge theory is the concept of 'nudging' people through subtle changes to do things that are in their self-interest. Recently, we have been working with David Hall and Rob Moore from Behaviour Change, an organisation that specialises in this area. Here they give us their insights into how this theory can apply to changes in diet.

Earlier this year, scientists made the startling claim that, when it comes to fruit and veg, the old five-a-day rule doesn’t cut it anymore. Ten portions of fruit and veg, they said, could prevent up to 7.8 million premature deaths across the world every year [Guardian, Feb 2017]. For many of us scrambling to get even three portions of fruit and veg a day, ten seems like a far-fetched and, quite frankly, impossible goal. 90% of the UK are well-aware of the importance of five-a-day, yet only 30% claim to be able to do it [Guardian, May 2014].

We could probably add to the list many other things that we ought to do, but never quite get round to doing – exercising 45 minutes a day, or stop drinking so much, being more careful about our spending online, or taking the bus instead of the usual car. We probably do want to change some of our less healthy habits, but life gets in the way.

It probably doesn’t sound surprising that changing what we normally do is difficult. In the past, we’ve been served numerous campaigns (especially in the area of public health) that try so hard to win over our hearts and minds. These campaigns were based on the idea that if people had enough information to know what was bad for them – if only they knew – then they would do the right thing and make a change. But do these campaigns actually work? Campaigns around sexual health for instance, try hard to raise awareness in young people about sexually transmitted infections, but there isn’t any consistent evidence that it encourages young people to go and get tested. Also, impact of any kind doesn’t seem to be able to survive after a campaign finishes.

There is however another approach to all this. Behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published their book “Nudge” in 2008, which proposed an alternative view of how we behave. What they said about human behaviour felt more accurate and familiar – for instance, just the fact that there is this huge gap between what we intend to do and what we actually do. Broadly termed as Behavioural Theory, this view asserts most of our decision-making and behaviour operates on autopilot and is subject to bias and other circumstantial influences, such as what our peers are doing or what emotional state we might be in. Nine years on, behavioural theory has been steadily gaining traction across different industries and sectors, helping organisations create real change where it counts.

A core part of behavioural theory is the concept of the ‘nudge’– an idea that could help us change some of our less desirable habits. Because much of what we do operates without real conscious deliberation or effort, a ‘nudge’ is something that implicitly pushes us in the right direction. A classic example of this is the widespread implementation of auto-enrolment for pension schemes. Rather than trying to get people to opt in to a scheme, by making enrolment automatic, then everyone is saving for retirement by default.

We can see ‘nudge’ at work in the way one secondary school addressed the problem of how to get students to eat more fruit and veg. The school found that, left to their own devices, canteen customers would simply avoid the salad. The intervention that really made a difference to uptake on the veg was when the kitchen crew asked each person passing the servery “would you like salad with that?” The school canteen found when kids were asked if they wanted a salad, they were more likely to say yes, and more importantly, next time were more likely to consider having a salad as a first choice. In that one particular school, salad sales went up by a third [NY Times, 2010]. And it has been subsequently found that even just positioning food differently in a buffet, or in a supermarket aisle, has a positive impact on getting people to eat more healthily [Science Daily, 2016].
Nudges have become so effective in changing behaviour that the government set up its own nudge unit in 2010. Whether for government, businesses or charities, behavioural theory has become one of the most invaluable tools for achieving individual change. With the adoption of behavioural theory becoming more widespread, finding ways to successfully translate nudge theory into real-life interventions is rapidly becoming regarded as the ‘holy grail’ of creating social change.

Our organisation – itself called ‘Behaviour Change’ – has been at the forefront of designing nudge-style campaigns since 2009. One of our most recent projects aimed to get people to stop dropping chewing gum. It’s a sticky issue indeed, costing local authorities as much as £60 million a year to clean it off our streets [Local Government Association, April 2017]. Fines and penalties proved unworkable as a deterrent but a clever nudge campaign found a way to tap into gum-droppers’ psychology. A poster campaign putting an adorable kitten into the frame (via Photoshop – just in case you’re concerned) did the trick, steering would-be gum-droppers to use the nearest available bin.

What does all this tell us about the challenge of getting people to take up being vegetarian?

For some, reconsidering one’s dietary choice is an all or nothing decision – you either continue eating meat or stop eating it, full stop. Others however, might think reducing meat intake is pretty much on the way to being a vegetarian.
Committing to being vegetarian and the conscious decision to eliminate all meat from one’s diet means being particularly focused and putting in the effort. Reducing the amount of meat you eat is probably less of an effort. It seems the uptake of dietary change actually exists on a continuum, from people who are meat-eaters to those who reduce meat intake, and then to those who are vegetarians.

As mentioned before, behavioural theory suggests most of us tend to make more habitual and subconscious decisions on an everyday level, including things like what to have for lunch. Nudges are not likely to be able to get people to jump from one end of the spectrum to the other in a short amount of time. They’re more likely to make the biggest impact on people who are about halfway across – e.g. people who are trying to reduce their meat intake.

However, nudges can lead the way to helping people further along the vegetarian destination. For example, can we alter people’s choices when it comes to mealtimes by flipping the menu to make the vegetarian option more salient? In restaurants, for example, this could mean dressing up the veggie main as the hero, not the meat one. It’s all about seeing these options differently – from how it’s presented on the plate, to ways of conveying its value other than price. Just because vegetarian ingredients are generally more affordable, doesn’t mean the dishes should look or taste inferior. Taking it a step further, can we start making the meat-free option the default in places as diverse as hospitals to high-end eateries? This means instead of people having to request the vegetarian options, now they have to go out of their way to ask for a dish with meat.

It might not get everyone to become vegetarian right away, but we see behavioural theory at the very least, shines light on new ways to nudge people to head in the right direction.

By David Hall and Rob Moore. With thanks to Helen Li, Researcher at Behaviour Change, London.

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