Increasing welfare through healthy eating habits (Part 2)

Part 2 – Behavioral Change Technique applied to food decision-making

Peter, on the advice of Kate and Hugo, decides to watch a documentary about the body effects of excessive consumption of animal products. Despite initial scepticism, he knows that changing lifestyle requires doing things outside of his own comfort zone.

The structure of the documentary is characterized by three elements: visual impact, key data (particularly the likelihood of certain diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, etc.) and professional figures (doctors, personal trainers). Peter is impressed, a bit frightened to assimilate such information. He decides, therefore, to search and, if possible, follow on Instagram those professional figures he saw on the documentary. He browses their profiles, looks at their posts, sees photos of professional vegan athletes in full form. Some of them publish photos of meals they prepare during the day, followed by a description of the dish and the macronutrients it contains. Peter decides to emulate a recipe. He buys everything he needs and starts to create. He cooks, season and plate. Taste. “It’s not that bad,” he thinks, “Maybe I should include this recipe in my weekly plan. Thus, from a meat consumption of five times a week, Peter moves on to a weekly consumption equal to four. On one hand, he knows he still has a long way to go to make his diet healthier. However, he has at least managed to find the motivation to change, albeit to a small extent, his habits.

Peter’s awareness process can be analysed through the so-called Behavioural Change Techniques (BCTs), which belong to the family of behavioural economics. These ones, applied to marketing, aim to direct an individual’s behaviour towards more conscious consumption. Researchers[1] explain this transition through neurosciences applied in decision-making.

The brain is in essence composed of three distinct systems:

The goal-directed system uses the answer-results association to deduce which answers will bring the best results from current goals point of view. It is dependent on working memory and sensitive to sudden changes affecting motivational states.

The habit system uses the stimulus-response association to issue responses that have generated the best results in the past. It dominates the phases after learning and is insensitive to sudden changes affecting motivational states.

The impulsive system acts as a link between the two systems and generates behaviour by associating the acquired affective states (e.g. trust, self-esteem) to specific stimuli (e.g. food, social groups).

The stimulus of the three systems allows to unfreeze the subconscious action corresponding to the bad habit and bring it to a conscious state, in which the individual starts to evaluate more carefully the available alternatives[2]. In Peter’s case, this stage takes over when he receives the information contained in the documentary. In addition, a new behaviour starts to be seriously considered by him as a potential habit when the action involves a certain degree of complexity (preparing a meal never cooked before) and when the consequences of the new behaviour are considered important (being healthier). Once the new behaviour is adopted, it will become frozen as a habit.

As far BCTs, we observe two in Peter’s situation: Messenger and Priming.

First, according to the MINDSPACE Framework for Behavior Change, “we are heavily influenced by who communicates information to us“. Thus, the sender plays a decisive role in the successful reception of a message. Being a sender, in this case, mean to spread information in a way these can have a considerable impact on others. Food influencers can be thought as senders, as they are capable of directing the individual’s choices towards healthier consumption practices. Their trump card is certainly the trust they instill in their recipients when they spread the message. For example, the doctor is someone who is generally trusted, since his specific training gives him knowledge that not everyone has. According to behavioural economics, the individual is an agent whose choices are influenced by those around him/her, especially in ambiguous situations characterized by a lack of knowledge. In this case, individuals will tend behave similarly to those they consider more experienced. Particularly, two aspects determine the conditioning of the choice: closeness, for which we often tend to imitate the behaviour of someone who is close to us or in the same situation; authority, for which we try to listen to those who are worthy, in our opinion, of greater trust because they are experts in a given subject. This mechanism, also identified as Social Proof[3], is used a lot in online marketing techniques. According to the Rakuten Marketing report, 65% of users, before making a decision, search online for experiences of those who made the choice at an earlier time, while 43% of consumers trust the influencer who reviews a product[4]. The influencer, therefore, appears as a figure whose communication strategy can start a real revolution in consumer choice.

Secondly, priming is a mechanism in which a given stimulus (called prime) influences the elaboration of a stimulus presented immediately afterwards (named target). Priming describes the activation of specific concepts that are present in our memory, induced by a specific stimulus, in order to influence the elaboration of any subsequent performance or behaviour. For example, researchers found out that some terms such as feat, athletic or active influenced people to use lifts rather than stairs[5].

Instagram uses significantly the priming technique, as it is mainly focused on sharing multimedia content. For example, in Peter’s case, priming affected his behaviour in two different ways:

–           In the form of words. In fact, the vision of percentages written in block letters stimulates sight and is associated with various thoughts. During the viewing of the documentary, Peter assimilated various key data concerning the probability of a person with bad eating habits to develop serious illnesses. The vision of these data generated fear, allowing him to activate himself to seek useful stimuli that could accompany him in his path of awareness.

–           On a visual level, looking at the posts on Instagram of plant-based recipes. In this case, the sight of an inviting looking dish is associated with positive emotional states. Consequently, the first genre on the change in Peter’s behaviour, who then decides he wants to put a plant-based recipe into practice.


[1] Vlaev, Ivo, King, Dominic, Dolan, Paul and Darzi, “The theory and practice of “nudging”: changing health behaviors” P. 550-561

[2] Emma Dawnay, Hetan Shah, “Behavioural economics: seven principles for policy-makers”, www.neweconomics.org

[3] Jackson, “Social Proof: how to Use Marketing Psychology to Boost conversions”, https://sproutsocial.com/insights/social-proof/

[4] Rakuten Marketing

[5] (Vlaev, 2016, pp. 17-18)

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