Nudging the Tanker

Another Nobel Prize That Reflects on Obesity

NudgeLast week it was the biological clocks that rule our metabolism. This week it’s the economics of little nudges in everyday choices – like what to eat. For bringing economic and behavioral sciences together, Richard Thaler has won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Thaler explained how people make decisions that do not always seem rational. He popularized the concept of nudging people toward better choices. Through the lense of behavioral economics, some notable failures in obesity strategy become understandable. And perhaps some better solutions will emerge.

Insight into the Counter-Intuitive Nature of Obesity

Thaler’s work is important for understanding obesity precisely because he brought the discipline of an economist to understanding why people make seemingly irrational choices.

In the popular imagination, obesity is a failure of self-control. But Thaler’s work offers a sharp contrast. Self-control is, in fact, unusual. That’s because most people make daily lifestyle choices based on what is easiest and most immediately pleasing. This is nothing new.

What’s new is the abundance of options that are so easy, so pleasing, and in the long run, so harmful to our physical health. “Have a Coke and a smile! Makes you feel gooood.” “You want fries with that?”

Explaining Failed Strategies for Obesity

With the understanding that rationality doesn’t rule human behavior, some notorious failures in obesity prevention strategies are completely unsurprising.

Take for instance, the idea of providing nutrition labeling for restaurant menus. Nasty fights erupted when skeptics said that this initiative might do little good. Advocates promoted the assumption that arming people with good information would lead to healthier choices. It did not. The skeptics proved to be right and menu labeling turned out to be a “surprising failure.”

Likewise, food deserts seemed to be causing pockets of obesity. People who lived in those deserts didn’t have access to good, healthy food in supermarkets. So governments spent substantial sums of money to put supermarkets into those food deserts. But it had little impact on diet quality or obesity rates. Supermarkets are a great place to buy all kinds of food, including that perpetual boogeyman – junk food.

A Pragmatic Framework

Thaler’s work offers a pragmatic framework for strategies to address obesity. Instead of relentlessly pursuing things that logically ought to work, perhaps we can redirect our efforts. Toward strategies that actually do have a measurable impact.

Now wouldn’t that be logical?

Click here for more on this year’s Nobel Prize in economics. For more on Thaler’s work, click here and here.

Nudging the Tanker, photograph © byronv2 / flickr

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November 10, 2017

4 Responses to “Another Nobel Prize That Reflects on Obesity”

  1. October 10, 2017 at 11:52 am, Susan Burke March said:

    Ted Kyle, this is the most thoughtful and profound column. It’s really hard to hear those well-intentioned initiatives to help people make more informed and healthier choices don’t work. But your explanation of Thaler’s theories as a “framework for strategies to reduce obesity” is food for thought. Now… what actually does work? Whew. Thanks, Ted.

    • October 10, 2017 at 1:04 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Susan. Obesity is complex enough to give everyone a pretty big dose of humility. So we need to look at the evidence. Objectively.

  2. October 13, 2017 at 9:11 am, Rosalie said:

    What works to reduce the rate of obesity?
    Banning advertising
    Increasing the cost of sugar sweetened beverages
    Outdoor activities
    Walkways, cycleways and good public transit

    • October 14, 2017 at 3:28 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Rosalie, Those are all testable propositions.