Nudging consumers to eat healthier: guidance without being told how to live
Nudging consumers towards healthier choices has been a hot topic for some time. Nudges are simple, low-cost interventions to move consumers towards healthier choices without banning food products or telling them how to live. There is a lot of attention for nudging since Thaler and Sunstein published their influential book 'Nudge' in 2008. The authors explain how to subtly redesign choice environments (such as canteens, stores), the so-called 'choice architecture', in such a way that consumers are gently pushed in a more responsible direction without limiting their freedom of choice. The concept is based on behavioural economics and psychological theories on how people are biased in their decision making. People tend to act automatically, often triggered by the environment. Despite knowing we should eat more fruit, we tend to buy a chocolate bar while waiting in line for the checkout. By redesigning the choice context, we can be nudged into buying something more healthful. For example David Just and Brian Wansink illustrate how simply moving the salad bar to a more central position in the school lunch room led to increased sales of salads.
Not everyone is enthusiastic and there is a growing debate about the value of nudging. The British Medical Journal recently published two papers that debated the question: 'Are nudges really an effective public health strategy to tackle obesity?'. Geof Rayner and Tim Lang worry that governments are only interested because of self-promotion motives. It also allows them to back away from taking strong (and often unpopular) actions, such as higher taxes and stricter regulation. In contrast, Adam Oliver believes that nudges may help people to make healthier choices. He argues that nudges should be seen as additional tools to move society in a more beneficial direction. In the Netherlands, Henriette Prast argued in the 'Groene Amsterdammer' that the private sector takes advantage of human weaknesses and that it is time for the government to develop some counterforce.
I believe that the concept of nudging is a refreshing way to look at creative, inexpensive and new ways to help consumers eat healthier. But indeed, evidence so far on how nudging helps improving food choices is limited, so more research is needed to understand whether they work and how exactly. And if nudges work, will they have a sustained impact on consumer behaviour?