Making behaviour change about everyday things









Behaviour change efforts will always be more effective if you start by considering how people behave in their home, at work – in the real world. It might seem an obvious point, but we don’t live in a world of units, milligrams, servings or calories. Rather, we drink from glasses, eat from plates, use cups as a measuring tool, and often equate exercise as something that gives us permission to eat more. By communicating with people in these terms, we are giving them the information they need to act. By building on how people live their life, we effectively “shrink the change” by going with the flow of human behaviour – rather than competing with it. It’s a key first step I believe when considering how to frame many behaviour change initiatives.

I was reminded of this during a recent visit to a naturopath. She was talking about the amount of vegetables I eat every day (funnily enough, even as a vegetarian, I can still eat more). But when giving me my prescription, she asked what would be a more relevant term – “servings” or “cups”. For me, it’s cups, and I’d suggest for many others as well. Fruit might work well as servings, but it’s a different matter when talking about vegetables (given how we generally prepare and eat them).

So how might that apply in other campaigns focusing on health promotion?

There’s this effort from Change4life, with a focus on helping people reduce those “sneaky” drinks in their day. Smartly I think, they chose to talk about the idea based on glasses not units. If course, while everyone drinks from different sized glasses, it was communicating a broader message through TV. Online tools and community efforts can help to educate people on the idea of a standard sized drink or glass. But I think they are off to a great start by tackling the issue in terms people can relate to, rather than spending considerable energy to educate people on the idea of units of alcohol.


Or what about this wonderful solution to the challenge of health labeling on food. Instead of trying to find simple ways to showcase the amount of fat in our food, it gets to the heart of the matter by converting fat to energy. It does this by highlighting how much exercise we would have to do to work off the fat we’ve just eaten. Fantastic!

Of course, given how effective it would be in making people think (and change their behaviour), I would guess it’s likely to face extreme opposition from private industry.

In another example, the new USDA food guide ( released last year replaced the pyramid with a more relevant graphic focused around a plate. Again, a good attempt to relate information in terms people can connect with.

By understanding how people think, how they translate information, how they behave at home, at work, in the car, at the gym, we will give ourselves a better chance of changing behaviour. It’s not rocket science really. It’s simply about ensuring we’re not getting overwhelmed by the “curse of knowledge” within the industry we find ourselves in. It’s about converting all that rich data and information into something meaningful  – something that builds on our existing behaviour as we nudge people toward healthier habits.


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