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Snacking on nudges
They have their place but we need to look at the bigger picture first
Nudges, the changing of behaviour through subtly redesigning the decision environment, typically relies on redirecting more automatic drivers of behaviour and therefore does not require much, if any, thought. The problem is that for behaviour to change, we often need people to think about it in a different way.
Take the example of snacking. Food manufacturing brands are increasingly aware of their social responsibilities to help people manage healthy lifestyles, so will give guidance on how much of an item to snack on. This means, for example, pack sizes may be smaller to ‘nudge’ people towards more healthy portions.
The challenge is the personal, social, cultural and historical contexts in which our behaviours are formed. Over time, these have encouraged a set of behaviours which can mean we do not engage particularly with what, how much and how often we snack. To change these behaviours, we need people to stop, engage and think – in fact the opposite of a nudge.
And while the aim of nudges is clearly laudable. If we can subtly move people to more healthy behaviours then why not? But they can all too frequently fail to make significant changes to behaviour. For example, smaller pack sizes can often mean people simply consumer two packs rather than one. The nudge may simply backfire.
The problem really comes from assuming that a nudge is the appropriate solution before really having a proper diagnosis of the determinants of snacking. There are a variety of reasons why people snack. An obvious reason may be hunger but could also be due to a host of other reasons: they are anxious and it helps them relax; it is part of a regular routine (morning coffee and indulgent doughnut); they do it with others thus fulfilling a social need; they believe it gives them energy to see them through the day, driving positive outcomes.
It is only by understanding what needs are being met by snacking, is it then possible to help people to manage it in a healthy way. For example, understanding the way in which some snacks are seen as a morning indulgence they share with others (emotional and social support) means that snacking options can be developed and positioned in a way that references these needs whilst at the same time gently helping people to engage and think more carefully about how to eat in a healthy way.
Nudges have their place for sure, but we cannot ignore the range of very powerful behavioural determinants which can simply over-ride the subtleties of choice architecture. We need proper diagnosis and then a range of interventions which understand what people get from snacking, to then encourage engagement leading to positive outcomes.