Subconciously eating healthily
Sat, 22nd Sep 2012
Part of the show Contamination from Curiosity and Beating Bad Memories
Engaging with the unconscious processes that affect our decision making may provide a more effective way to increase the healthiness of people’s behaviour. Harmful behaviours like overeating, smoking, drinking, and being physically inactive are part of many people’s everyday lives. Conditions caused by these behaviours such as diabetes, heart disease, lung diseases and cancer cause a huge number of premature deaths each year, and yet many of these are preventable. The World Health Organisation have pledged to cut the number of premature deaths by these illnesses by 25% by 2025, but despite attempts at intervention, the number of obese people is still growing.
Cambridge University researchers, Professor Theresa Marteau and Gareth Hollands at the Institute of Public Health and Prof. Paul Fletcher at the Department of Psychiatry have reviewed the ways in which these interventions are carried out in their recent paper in Nature. They have also looked at how effective different methods can be. They found that the majority of schemes aim to inform the public, increasing their knowledge and understanding of the harmful effects of certain lifestyles. However, the team argue that these methods are ineffective as they only target the conscious, rational part of the brain. A large proportion of our decisions, however, are made unconsciously, on ‘autopilot’. They argue that tapping into our unconscious associations could produce a much stronger result. For example, increasing the number of positive associations with healthy foods, and the number of negative associations with unhealthy foods could influence people’s choices. Another important factor is ease and accessibility- people often take the easiest or quickest route, so making lifts slower or less numerous could encourage people to take the stairs instead.