If you’ve made some healthy resolutions for 2018, understanding the science behind why we make certain decisions can help you keep on track. We spoke to UCL’s Dr Philippa Lally, who studies how we form habits, to find out how a behaviour science – called nudge theory – can help make your 2018 resolutions stick.
What is nudge theory?
Nudge theory is about introducing subtle changes, or ‘nudges’, into our lives to encourage certain choices. It’s about making the preferred choice the easiest choice, rather than forcing or forbidding other options. And crucially, it’s about making choices that people are happy with – nudging isn’t about tricking people.
Nudges have been used for years to advertise products, and governments also use nudging in public health policy, to help encourage people to do a certain thing. For example, tweaking text message reminders has been shown to help reduce the number of missed NHS appointments. By adding a phone number for cancelling the appointment, plus the cost to the NHS if you don’t go, missed appointments fell by a quarter in a pilot study.
So these small changes work. And research is showing they can help turn choices into habits.
Lally describes a habit as “an association between a situation and an action”.
Each time you do that thing in the same situation “the association becomes stronger”, she says.
“And changing your environment is much easier than trying to control yourself.”
A recent study has also shown how this could work for healthy diets. It looked at data from other research on the effectiveness of nudges in changing adults’ diet. Nudges, such as providing calorie information or changing the range of portion sizes, led to an average 15.3% increase in healthier dietary or nutritional choices.
Make the healthy choice the easy choice
The easiest choice is often the most convenient one. So make healthy choices more convenient. Studies have shown that the order of food on offer at a buffet significantly affects meal choices. People pick the foods that come first or that are easiest to take. So while you may think you’ll go out of your way to have bacon and eggs rather than granola – research suggests otherwise.
The opposite is also true, making food harder to get can help reduce the amount you eat. One study found that by simply changing the serving utensil from a spoon to tongs reduced the amount of food taken by 8-16%.
So putting the biscuits or wine at the back of the cupboard could help you to cut down.
“Habits are all about cues,” says Lally. “The best way not to perform a habit is not to encounter your cue. If you can control the context to remove the cues, that is the easiest thing to do. By far the best thing would be to throw the biscuits out, to remove the cue, but even moving them might help.”
Plan for success
“If you want to create a new habit, you need to think carefully about how you’re going to do it,” says Lally. “Making a plan as to how you are going to achieve your more general goal is a good way to encourage that behaviour. Then after enough time, it should become a habit.”
Many studies support the idea of short term goals, particularly for losing weight. These can be used alone, or in combination with more long-term goals.
“If you make a plan, for example: ‘every day after my lunch I will have a piece of fruit’, that is called an implementation intention. That begins to form the association even by just saying it.”
It’s also a behavioural phenomenon that the closer we see ourselves to a goal, the more motivated we are to complete it. By charting success through small individual tasks to reach a bigger goal, we may be more likely to stick to a resolution. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that monitoring progress can help with long term success.
“Monitoring is a really good thing, because it keeps the habit fresh in people’s minds. You could tick it on a sheet on your fridge every day, or set a reminder on your phone,” suggests Lally.
Strength in numbers
Creating a group resolution helps to tackle two common behavioural challenges. First, people often prefer to avoid losing rather than to pursue winning. If you fear that you’re missing out on something, you will be more motivated to achieve it. “People often make decisions based on what other people are doing,” says Lally. So FoMO could be a powerful ally.
Second, people generally place more emphasis on immediate rewards or punishment. This might explain why many people don’t exercise or eat healthily enough, because the immediate pleasure of the unhealthy option can outweigh the enjoyment of a healthy lifestyle in the future. By creating an immediate benefit, such as making exercise a way to spend time with friends, it becomes a positive thing to do, not just for any future gains. And several studies have shown that social support and participating as groups increases how active people are.
“Having social support in any change is always good,” says Lally. “If you go to a pub, and everybody else is drinking around you, that is hard, whereas if you are all not drinking, then that is a lot easier.”
Remember it’s not all-or-nothing
“People feel like you’ve got to stop eating everything that tastes nice and start running marathons,” says Lally. “But you can make a big difference to your health by consistently sticking to small changes.”
Habits don’t happen overnight. A habit is something that is done automatically because it has been done frequently in the past. So while nudges might help encourage healthy behaviour, they won’t become habits immediately.
It’s the age-old refrain: practice make perfect. The more often you do something, the easier it is to do automatically. And once something becomes a habit, you don’t have to think about doing it anymore.
So while a resolution might not be habit by the end of January, stick with it. And whatever your New Year’s resolution is, there are more tips and information on our website to help you along the way to making that change.
“These changes can feel like small decisions, but small habits can actually make a big difference to your life,” says Lally.
And with 4 in 10 cancers being preventable, a nudge might be all you need.
Sophia Lowes is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK