Health Behaviours

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I had the opportunity to attend a great lecture last night as part of Edinburgh University’s ‘Our Changing World’ lecture series. It was right up my street, looking at Health Economics and Health Behaviours. The presenter, Prof. Michele Belot, did a great job at explaining why we find it difficult to adopt behaviours which are good for us – particularly health behaviours such as taking exercise, eating well and limiting alcohol intake. We learnt why we might want to do these things, but then find it difficult to stick to our plans. The important factors seem to be about our biases in valuation (or preference) and our biases in cognitive processing. In terms of biases in valuation there were three factors:

  1. Present biases – we discount the future (e.g. we procrastinate and convince ourselves that we will exercise tomorrow).
  2. Status quo and endowment biases – we value losses more heavily than gains.
  3. Context effects – we are affected by the number and choice of alternative options.

In terms of cognitive biases, the key issue was that as humans we have limited cognitive resources so often turn to autopilot, habits or simply stick to what we already know.

Professor Belot finished her lecture by explaining some interesting resulting implications for policy. Firstly, economics would suggest that information campaigns are likely to have only limited impacts on encouraging us to take up more healthy behaviours. Instead, we need mechanisms to help us to commit to what we know is good for us. Additionally, there may be ways to make the present choice ‘better’  or more valuable. So, for instance, people may be offered incentives to start going to the gym. Finally, recognising endowment biases allows us to understand that asking people to give up junk food is likely to be more difficult for them compared to asking them to add in fruit and veg.

All-in-all, a great lecture which really got me thinking about my own health behaviours, but also about how these conclusions can be transferred into encouraging sustainable travel behaviours.

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