Shoving Health Down the Throat

Any junior marketer — or mother — can tell you why shoving health down the throat doesn’t bring out the desired behavior.

No ThanksThe phenomenon is called reactance. When you threaten someone’s autonomy with controlling language or actions, they respond instinctively with resistance. It’s a classic in toddlers and teens.

This effect is playing out to varying degrees over nutrition in schools all around the country and in Washington right now. Some school districts are complaining about increased food waste under requirements to serve more nutritious offerings.

Others are finding ways to deal with it by nudging students toward better choices, but stopping short of outright shoving that proves to be counterproductive. Meanwhile, politicians are squaring off in Washington in a fight over revising school nutrition guidelines that have just barely gone into effect.

Mix in some money and lobbying by food service companies distressed about falling pizza sales to schools and we have a real mess.

All of this drama provides an important lesson in human behavior. Implementing obesity and nutrition policies with a shove often elicits a backlash and results in a setback. When Denmark overreached with taxes on high-fat foods in 2011, the public backlash was so strong and immediate that it was repealed within a year.

Such mistakes make the perfect into the enemy of the good. Very often, a much greater effect can be had with simpler interventions that will elicit less resistance. The choice between extreme measures and doing nothing is false.

The key is to test policies that will work — bringing the intended effect without activating excessive resistance. Therein lies the art and science of effective policymaking.

Click here to read more in the Atlantic, here to read more in the Washington Post, and here to read more about reactance in health promotion.

No, photograph © Nathan Gibbs / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.