Science - October 7, 2010

‘Unhealthy options are the default setting’

Humans are irrational beings and that is why healthy lifestyle campaigns only meet with partial success, said Social psychologist Reint Jan Renes in a lecture at the opening of Food4you. ‘People often make decisions on an irrational basis’.

We all recognize the phenomenon: after a lavish dinner, we still find room for a sweet, fatty desert. Or that bag of sweets we just have to finish. From a rational standpoint, such choices are inexplicable, but Reint Jan Renes of Communication Science, knows that the idea that humans are rational beings is an illusion. 'Homo economicus, whose behaviour is governed by a cost-benefit analysis, does not exist', he declared at the opening of the Food4you festival in Ede. 'People are only rational to a limited extent and most of their behaviour is governed by instincts and unconscious processes. That is certainly true for food choices.'

Unhealthy is the default setting
The urge to make unhealthy choices can be explained by our genetic make-up, says Renes. Deep down we are still prehistoric humans, for whom it was advantageous to eat as much as possible, and plenty of fat. But this is a disaster in our western society. Our instinctive urge for variety turns out very badly for us in a context of excess supply and huge variety. 'Experiments have shown that the urge for variety quickly leads to overeating,' explains Renes. 'For example, people eat more sweets from a bowl containing M&Ms in ten different colours than they do from a bowl containing seven colours.'
It is not just our genes that wrong-foot us when it comes to healthy eating, though. Society encourages harmful behaviour too. Lifts and escalators make life easy and you never have to walk far to find a fast food outlet. Increasingly, you have to make a conscious effort to live healthily. 'Unhealthy is the default setting', explains Renes. He therefore expresses no surprise at the failure of government campaigns to promote a healthier lifestyle. 'By simply banging on to young people about the fact that alcohol can cause breast cancer later, you are overestimating the power of free well', he asserts. 'Because alcohol also evokes unconscious associations with a good time and a relaxed night out with friends.'
Negative associations
The solution, according to Renes, lies in smart marketing of a healthy lifestyle. You also have to make it easy for people to take healthy options, and you should make it difficult or even impossible to take the unhealthy option. An example cited by Renes is smoking policy. 'You now have to make a physical effort to smoke, and it is a conscious choice', he explains. 'Not smoking has become the default option.' In campaigns to reduce drinking among young people, says Renes, you should create subtly negative associations with alcohol and let the message get across implicitly. If you take into consideration the irrational basis of choices, you might be able to get people to skip desert.