Improving Community Health with Behavioral Science: A Request For Problems

Jun 9, 2016 | By ideas42 in Blog

When choosing which foods to eat, what factors influence your decision? Taste? Whether or not it’s healthy? Or how easy it is to get? For most people today, convenience seems to play an outsized role in which foods they choose. While it sounds great on the surface, this shift away from taste to convenience has created a new health problem in the United States, because convenient options like pre-packaged meals and fast food also happen to be the least nutritious options. In some low-income communities, convenience foods may not simply be the easiest option—they’re increasingly also the only option. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies many low-income communities as food “deserts”: neighborhoods in which a substantial share of residents lack access to a supermarket or local grocery store selling fresh foods. The prevalence of convenience foods that are low in nutritional quality and high in calories has been linked to the current obesity crisis.

Thankfully, the solution lies in understanding the factors that created this community health problem in the first place. Because convenience matters so much, helping people make healthier choices requires one simple strategy: make healthy choices more convenient!

For example, when researchers visited a New York public school cafeteria they encountered a system designed to create two lines for students, with the same food choices offered in each. As part of a study, one of the two lines was redesigned so it only included only healthy options, like salads and whole fruits. By analyzing student food purchases and consumption in the two different lines, researchers found that the introduction of the healthy food line increased the proportion of healthy food consumption from 33% to 36% and decreased the consumption of unhealthy foods from 28% to 23%, a statistically significant difference.

Insights from behavioral science can help explain why small, subtle changes can make such a difference in our eating habits. When we make a decision about which types of foods to choose, two psychological biases—present bias and defaults—tend to be at play. Present bias describes our tendency to place undue weight on current costs and benefits, when compared to future costs and benefits. It is present bias that somehow makes it ok for us to grab a coffee shop donut because we’re hungry now, even when we resolved the night before that we’d take the extra five minutes to bypass the coffeeshop on the way to work and stop at a fruit stand instead. In addition to succumbing to present bias, we also tend to go with default options. If fries are the default side offered with a meal, sometimes the extra step of having to request a salad as a substitute can be enough make most people stick with the (far less healthy) fries.

Behavioral insights are applicable to many problems beyond unhealthy food choices, and can be applied throughout our local communities to improve health and well-being. We’re partnering with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to design behavioral solutions to pressing community health problems. As the first phase of this work, we’re asking organizations to submit an application to our “Request for Problems” (RFP) with a description of a community health problem that needs solving. To apply, all you need is the problem– you don’t need to have a proposed solution. That’s what we’re here to help with!

What we are looking for are well-defined problems. More than likely these will involve situations in which people are doing one thing, but you (and probably the individuals themselves) would really like to be doing something different, like making healthier choices. Are you (or your organization) working to improve health and well-being in your community? Apply today! For more information on how to put together your behavioral problem application and apply online, please visit ideas42.org/communityhealth