Need a nudge? Behavior change secrets revealed.

A dirt path in the woods splits into two different directions

Need a nudge? We all do from time to time! But what does that really mean? The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the concept of "behavior nudging," based on nudge theory (coined by economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein). This concept reflects how individual decision making can be impacted by subtle changes in how choices are presented.

For example, if your employer uses automatic enrollment for health insurance, they are “nudging” employees toward purchasing insurance, and making it more difficult to forego coverage. The behavioral default is set towards enrollment. In school or work cafeterias, when healthier food items are placed at eye level, individuals are more likely to choose those items. Such subtle shifts in “choice architecture” are meant to encourage healthier food consumption. Health-related decisions are influenced by: pricing; product messaging (e.g., highlighting the benefits of a supplement on the label); efforts to make the behavior or product more fun or appealing; or by adding social and/or competitive components (e.g., sharing progress with friends or colleagues, joining a team, or competing for a prize). And research shows that these forms of nudging do, at times, help people make healthier decisions. Sounds straightforward, right?

Of course, it’s more complicated! First, at our core, humans crave agency. No one likes to feel manipulated or coerced into making decisions, particularly ones that are deeply personal (like weight loss, for example). Ever noticed that when your spidey sense points to manipulation, you feel driven to do the opposite of what you are being nudged to do? That is because we also crave autonomy. Second, and most importantly, any decision - especially those requiring sustained effort - must carry personal meaning. Doing a free introductory session of personal training at the gym is one thing, but continuing to go, week after week, is quite another - especially if working out in a gym is just not your thing!

It is at this challenging yet exciting juncture where we meet our clients. We work with our clients to reflect on their values, explore what makes achieving their goals feel challenging, and brainstorm how to draw from what’s most important to them to overcome those barriers. For example, someone who highly values social connection may have an easier time achieving their health goals, like increasing daily water consumption, when a friend joins them in the effort. Not only may this social component make the process more enjoyable, but it creates an association between something neutral (or even annoying) and something (or someone) that is of greater importance.

The clinicians at HPP help facilitate a decision-making process for our clients - but we do not drive it. We encourage decisions which truly reflect our clients values and individuality. Sometimes those decisions overlap with what others (like a family member) desire, and may even be directly tied to those people in some way. Other times, personal decisions do not align with what others want or would choose for themselves. Ultimately, being thoughtful about how you approach your health behavior goals, and feeling truly connected to those goals in some way, are the best predictors of success.

photo credit: James Wheeler  (royalty free)

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