Thursday, January 10, 2008

Behavior Tech: Lose Weight and Save the Planet

On the strength of his expertise in consumer behavior and diet, Cornell food psychologist Brian Wansink has been appointed director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, home of the food pyramid. His 2006 book, Mindless Eating, has been getting attention and he was recently named Person of the Week on ABC World News (the interview and other news stories are posted on Amazon). His work is all about behavioral technology (behavior tech): how to actually get behavior to change in the direction we want. His thesis is that if we become aware of the determinants of our eating habits, especially the cues surrounding the presentation of food, we can gain more control over them. Supposing we can simply will our way to losing weight doesn’t cut it, since it turns out the will itself is controlled by various factors, internal and external.

This of course isn’t a new idea, but it might seem that way since the myth of willpower perpetually overshadows the practical wisdom of understanding our determinants. We tend to be radical individualists, supposing that behavior is governed by a self that’s more or less immune to influences, but the science of behavior (remember BF Skinner?) calls that assumption into question. A smarter approach, which Wansink’s work exemplifies, is to admit we’re fully in the causal mix. Then we’re in a much better position to realize our ambitions, whether its weight loss or anything else, by means of manipulating our environment to elicit the behavior we want. Example: use smaller plates, keep serving platters and dishes of candy out of sight. The will is weak when temptation is nigh, so get smart and banish temptation.

The idea of becoming aware of our determinants fits in nicely with some spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, which emphasizes the importance of self-knowledge gained through practices such as mindfulness meditation. In fact, the deepest self-knowledge is that there isn’t a substantial self in there, controlling behavior and witnessing experience. We are physical, dynamic processes responsive to contingencies, not puppet masters of ourselves. This very un-American idea won’t catch on anytime soon, but it’s what both science and Buddhism tell us, and what Wansink is ultimately driving at (although he may not realize it).

Getting good at controlling food intake is, as the ABC news story says, behavior change on a small, personal scale. But Wansink understands it can be scaled up: "If you can see that just making certain small changes can have this ripple effect on your life -- man, that's doing people a tremendous service that goes way beyond nutrition and physical activity and health." Behavior tech on a large scale is exactly what’s necessary to address looming collective threats to the environment and global stability. If we can agree on goals (and even many conservatives now admit that action on climate change is necessary), then we we’re much more likely to attain them if we understand the factors that shape behavior. But this first requires admitting that behavior is indeed caused, not a matter of self-initiated will.

Unfortunately, the ideology of radical freedom – the idea that each of us can and should simply choose to make the right choice, independent of circumstances – prevents the smart application of behavior tech, for instance in building safe and healthy schools and communities which elicit good behavior by design. Likewise, the political will to respond to climate change can be mustered, if we come to terms with the fact that the will itself is a function of conditions. Understanding our determinants, we can lose weight and save the planet.


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