Make it easy and make it obvious
What makes McDonalds and other fast-food chains or restaurants so successful? There’s been a lot of research and publicity around how they design their food to stimulate our ‘feel good’ brain chemicals and hormones, but would they have done so well if they’d also expected their customers to:
- drive to their stores
- find parking
- get out of their cars
- walk around a big store to find what they wanted
- queue up to pay for their purchases
- get back into their car
- drive home
- unpack everything
- come up with a recipe to use their products
- prepare the recipe
- finally sit down to eat it and THEN
- have to wash up the dishes and clean the kitchen?
Humans have outperformed virtually every other species on the planet because we excel at finding the quickest way to get what we want. We’re so good at it that we often don’t know we’re doing it, which is why this invisible brilliance can be manipulated by businesses, marketers, and others to get almost all of the people to do what they want, almost all of the time.
The system we live in has evolved to anticipate our needs and influence our responses. And the people who benefit from our continued compliance aren’t likely to want that to change anytime soon. We aren’t asking for change because we don’t imagine that things could be any other way.
Here’s how it works.
The obesity epidemic
We talk about obesity as a societal problem. We encourage individuals to make good choices and lead a healthy life. When I say we, I mean everyone. Individuals, organisations, government. And as a big ‘by the way’, the medical professionals and political policymakers making these recommendations are already disciplined, educated people who thrive on order and structure, unlike the other 4 out of 5 people they’re making these recommendations to, who don’t look at the world the same way.
We see people spending massive amounts of money every day trying to be thinner or at least look thinner. The government knows this. The statistics that they collect tell us that Australians spent almost $500,000,000 last year on what are described as weight loss services. I wrote it like that so that you could see just how many zeros that is. For a population of only 25 million, that’s a lot of money. Worldwide, the figure is about US$200,000,000,000 a year.
The numbers continue to rise because the people who profit from the current situation keep spending an awful lot of money to get better at pushing our buttons without us even being aware of it. And what’s worse, they’re making us think that being overweight or unhealthy is our fault.
In an article titled Why You Can’t Get Enough Sugar published in Psychology Today, author Susan McQuillan describes just how they’re doing it.
“Some studies have shown that sugar causes the same chemical changes in the brain that occur with the use of addictive substances. In other words, sugar releases naturally occurring opiates in the brain, such as endorphins that produce feelings of fulfillment and contentment. Eating sugar also causes the release of chemical messengers like dopamine, a neurochemical that motivates us to search for food. At the same time, too much sugar can block the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that normally reigns in dopamine and prevents us from overeating. For some, this is a seemingly unstoppable cycle; it’s no wonder they feel they are addicted to food. Some people battle sugar cravings the way a drug addict struggles with methamphetamine, or a gambler approaches a horse race; they have to stay away altogether, or they will go on a binge. Giving in and eating sugary foods usually only result in cravings for more.”
Identifying sugar as a substance of concern isn’t new information. The problem is that avoiding it, and the countless other nasties in processed foods, is easier said than done.
In the average Australian city or town, should you feel hungry, it’s really easy to eat the wrong things and surprisingly time-consuming and inconvenient to eat the right ones.
That is, quite literally, the first rule of behavioural economics. If you want to get someone to do something, make it easy and make it the obvious choice. We know for sure that the fast-food companies have read that playbook and it’s time our policymakers did too.
If our goal as a society is to have healthy citizens, it’s up to us to create an environment that improves the chances of that happening. In the words of James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (a book I recommend to everyone), he says, “goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spent too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.”
The field of behavioural economics is an eye-opener for anyone who wants to understand why we make so many bad decisions. Predictably Irrational by behavioural economist Dan Ariely is another book I recommend to people interested in learning more.
How do we fix this?
We start by levelling the playing fields.
As the gateway to nutrition in our country, the first port of call should be Australia’s supermarket giants. They have the power and reach to make change happen overnight simply by making it easier for us to choose healthier options.
It makes sense that those who profit most from the problem should be made accountable for delivering the solution.
We know what good food choices look like. Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, the CSIRO, is the government agency responsible for scientific research. It has conducted extensive research into healthy eating and has invested a lot of time and effort in developing healthy eating plans, recipes and support for all types of nutritional requirements regardless of age, health, culture and eating preferences. I’m no expert, but their recommendations look to me like what a hunter-gatherer might eat. A bit of meat, fish or chicken or a vegetarian or vegan protein of your choice, and a lot of vegetables.
I’m not in any way suggesting Australia needs to become a nanny state. I’m suggesting we become a smart state.
Some of the world’s smartest companies have taken this approach. When Google, the global leaders in anticipating human behaviour, became aware that the design of their staff canteens was contributing to staff ill-health, they took notice. The Google Food Team and the Yale Center for Customer Insights partnered to observe, analyze, and present food choices in a different way.
“The salad bar was moved to the front entrance so it’d be the first thing people saw, plates were reduced to smaller sizes to encourage better portions, and desserts were made into smaller portions and moved to a far corner of the cafeteria. Fruit is available on counters, while candy is in the drawers. Finally, water bottles were placed at eye level in fridges, while soda and other sugary drinks were placed lower, behind frosted glass. The company also offers cooking classes to employees so they make more informed choices.”
For more, read this article.
To take a leaf out of Google’s book, we could start with having no more chocolates, chips and other unhealthy snacks lining the exits of every single checkout or the ends of every row of shelves, and continue with a hundred small tweaks from there.
Safety recommendations have a precedent
Safety recommendations have a precedent in almost every area of society. Seatbelts for example have been mandatory for new cars sold in Australia since 1970 and by 1977, all Australian states had passed laws to make it compulsory to wear them. Many other safety features have been made compulsory since then and you can now assume that any new car available to buy in an Australian car showroom in 2021.xxx
Yet people can sell whatever food they like – provided it’s prepared hygienically and labelled correctly – regardless of what we know about the link between food and health.
So if the government have done their job by warning us is it now up to us to do the right thing, yes? Nope.
In a David and Goliath battle, they’re letting us get thrashed, while we shout over our shoulder at them to leave us alone because we’re individuals and we know how to take care of ourselves.
We don’t and it’s time for the government to step in and take Goliath’s sword away.
Measured by revenue, the size of the fast food and takeaway food services industry in 2021 in Australia alone is $20,800,000,000. I’ve written it that way so that you’ll notice how many zeros are in that number.
And in a 2019 report from The Obesity Collective titled Weighing in: Australia’s growing obesity epidemic, the estimated financial burden of obesity in Australia is estimated to be $11.8 billion. That’s $11,800,000,000 written so that you can see how many zeros are in that one, too.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 1 in 13 adults eats enough fruit and vegetables, 94% of children aged 2 to 17 don’t eat enough vegetables, and one-third of our energy intake comes from food we don’t need.
The Australian Institute of Health & Welfare report titled Overweight and Obesity, for the financial year 2017–18, noted that an estimated 1 in 4 (25%) children and adolescents aged 2–17 were overweight or obese (1.2 million children and adolescents). It also revealed that an estimated 2 in 3 (67%) adult Australians aged 18 and over were overweight or obese (36% were overweight but not obese, and 31% were obese). That’s around 12.5 million adults.
Live to eat or eat to live
We love to eat. We use food to celebrate, to connect, and to share and it’s one of the best things about being human.
We know from science the important role food plays in our health, and behavioural economics shows us how flawed our decision-making is. When flawed purchasing decisions result in us wearing an outfit that makes us look ridiculous, that’s something society can live with, but when they result in us poisoning ourselves and our planet in slow motion and creating an unsustainable financial drain on our system, that’s something that needs attention.
Fast-food chains and supermarkets are experts at efficiency. I’m not suggesting we close them down, I’m suggesting we make them part of the solution. And leaving their menus in place and adding a lifeless salad to the bottom of it isn’t a solution, it’s a cop-out.
We could make their menus comply with the CSIRO diet in ingredients and quantities so that no matter what choice someone makes at the drive through, it would be nutritious. We could perhaps talk to the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government, the Australian Government’s central unit for applying behavioural insights (BI) to public policy. This is a department that already exists so the Government must already know it’s potential benefits.
For years, corporations have been allowed to exploit individuals in a contest they’re guaranteed to keep winning. They’ve made sure we know how much we’re going to love people knowing we own an iPhone 13, but when we spend the same amount of money on additional superannuation contributions or life insurance – things that are arguably a far better use of our money – there’s no reward built into the process to encourage us to do more of the same.
When we consider the issue of obesity, our evolutionary responses to sugar and fat combined with the everyday person’s lack of expertise when it comes to nutrition will keep individuals where corporations want them. It will remain that way until someone with the authority to change the structure – the Government for instance – steps in and levels the playing fields a little to make it easier and more obvious for everyday people to do the right thing for themselves, and for society as a whole.
If we wised up to how we’re being played, imagine what other solutions we could come up with?
What you can do
If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.
Atomic Habits, by James Clear page 24