Let me set the scene: It’s midway through the annual Society for Judgment and Decision Making conference in Toronto. Inside a conference room, behavioral and health scientists passionately discuss how to help people make healthier decisions while the event staff set up a snack table with coffee and huge cookies outside.
The session ends and the scientists start to exit, and I wonder what will happen next—will these scientists who are so interested in promoting health eat the cookies?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Every cookie is gone within minutes (even the raisin ones).
How should we make sense of these scientists’ apparent hypocrisy? It may be hard to imagine, but scientists can have difficulty following their own goals, just like everyone else. Behavioral scientists don’t just study irrationality, but live with it, too. Despite our own efforts to live rational lives, we find ourselves choosing irrationally and failing like everyone else—and this can become a large inspiration for our research.
As researchers, we understand that we have troubles with email addiction, procrastination, and blind optimism. We look at our own lives and say, “What could have helped me be more rational or what could have helped me exert more self-control?” At others times we ask ourselves, “What could have helped me relax more?”
Behavioral scientists should arguably be the most motivated to make healthy and rational choices, because we know the consequences of our actions all too well and are aware of the mistakes we make in pursuing our goals. Yet, we still do things like reach for the cookies we know we shouldn’t eat and constantly check our email, even though we know that such cognitive switching can greatly impair our work performance.
If all this education is not enough, then we need more than just lessons. That’s why we need research to develop technologies that aid us in self-control such as choice architecture, decision aids, better public policies, and general environmental design that enables better decisions.
At the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we make efforts to create a healthy and productive environment that can protect ourselves from ourselves. We try to keep the cupboards full of easily accessible health foods to protect us from our junk food temptations. We make public social pacts to protect us from our lazy temptations. We make the lab fun and even have the peace and simplicity of the Thinking & Dreaming room to keep us protected from our inefficient overworking temptations.
Today, there are way too many cookies outside of conference rooms. We must eliminate and reduce these cookies from our environments. Rather than act as individuals and fight with our current environments, we must work to create environments that help us be great individuals together.
Relevant Topical Readings.
A few months ago I attended a conference held by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. One of the interesting things they noted this year was about their lunch offering.
You might be surprised to know that meat production, between raising, processing, packaging, and preserving meat uses a lot of energy. In fact, Michael Pollan, author of The Omivore’s Dilemma once asserted that “A vegan in a Hummer has a lighter carbon footprint than a beef eater in a Prius” (it turns out that this was a bit of an exaggeration).
If you’ll note in the picture below, it seems that in this meeting (2009) the council was able to convince attendees to switch to a vegetarian lunch.
The trick, as I’ve blogged about before, was making the vegetarian option the default option! For the past two years, the council did not have any default and the vast majority of the attendants picked the meat option. This year they set up the vegetarian option as the default, and this yielded a more environmentally friendly results, with a mere 20 percent insisting on having their steaks (see the column for 2009).
The other good news is that the vegetarian option was also (in this case) more tasty and healthy.