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Feed for Thought

Can you legislate eating behavior?

October 25, 2011

This last week I’ve been spending some nights at a hotel, not an unusual activity in the grand scheme of things. However, this time I learned something. I already knew that keeping towels for more than one day helps the planet by lowering pollution through cutting detergent use (as every traveler knows). The new thing I realized was that the argument isn’t based on guilt (you must protect the planet or you’re a bad human being). Instead, it’s based on compliance with the general activity -- as do X% of visitors. This is a nudge. What? A nudge? What is a nudge? According to the dictionary it means “to push against gently, especially in order to gain attention or to give a signal.”

This image is very interesting and it comes from consumer science. If you pull a few strings for somebody, you can help them go the right direction. The ideal is to find a way to drive consumers to change their behavior in the general interest. No tax incentive, no moralizing: a gentle nudge. However, because decision-making is more complex than one imagines, this is not just a choice between freedom (the pleasure of having clean towels every night) and regulation (you have no choice, just keep your dirty towels or pay for clean ones).

The same goes for public encouragement in regard to well-being: for example, do not eat too much, do not eat fat and do not eat salt. For a long time, public policies were used only to constrain. However, the reasoning behind public choice is not easy to explain, and in a constrained situation consumers don’t comply freely. In fact, a part of them try to avoid it (just think about “the wearing of seat belts is required”).

As a result, information campaigning became the practice, based on the feeling that keeping a consumer informed was the best way to help them make the right decision. However, repeated information induces a kind of tiredness, and knowing how bad a behavior can be is often not enough to cause change on a personal level (for example, “smoking can kill”).

So the nudge comes as an additional method to steer clear of either freedom or the drawbacks of regulation. It is a triple lever: use encouragement, focus on the majority and social influence of kinship, and look to the force of inertia and smooth idleness (for example, not having plastic bags for consumer use at the supermarket check-out avoids the use of them since the majority will not ask for them). If you give everyone an alternative, there is no imposed choice.

Of course, cultural specificities stay strong: contagious behavior is stronger for Anglo-Saxons than it is for Latin cultures, just as parochial attitudes and group consciousness for both cultures differ. So those means of action have to be tested in each country in order to be used accurately.

In France, for example, the government has created a list of “nutritionally correct” behaviors and has begun to deploy some regulation through PNNS (Plan National Nutrition Santé, which means National Plan for Health and Nutrition). The first goal of the plan is to fight against obesity. However, it drives nutritionists and experts to a “pyramidal orthodoxy,” and gives a pattern for wrong and right behavior, such as “you must eat five fruits and vegetables every day,” or “eat three dairy products every day.”

This is a difficult injunction to deal with when, for example, you’re allergic to dairy products. The same for meat and fish. The last provision of PNNS deals with cafeterias (in France, there is a cafeteria in each school) which have been given precise rules for serving, rules that must be applied to six million students. And, for the first time, 35 vegetarian and vegan associations have joined forces to create a group action to fight against this “legal obligation” for students to eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs.

“A vegetarian child will still have the choice to leave his (or her) piece of meat at the edge of their plate, but no alternative for an equal meal will be offered.” This group is appealing to the United Nations’ statement about individual freedom of choice. The group is even speaking about bringing an action against France.

Maybe a nudge might have been more efficient than the law to offer children’s meals that fit with nutritional values (the other problem is “what is right nutrition value” but we’ll deal with that topic another time).

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