Can Behavioural Economics Help Us Finally Fit in Those High School Jeans?

I’ve always been interested in the topic of weight loss, in this specific geography, and the rise of shows like Honey Boo Boo and My Big Fat Fabulous Life completely fueled my fascination. I couldn’t pinpoint where it started, maybe because I was a rather chubby kid (and got lucky genes as I lost all the extra weight at puberty without pretty much-doing anything), but the interest stayed with me for years.

Another interest that I had for about 8 years now is the human mind, processes that define our choices, likes, dislikes, the whole shebang, where the behavior economics niche fits right into. So when I saw the homework topic for one of my papers at an elective that I took, I jumped right at it. I mean, put together the obesity in the US phenomenon and behaviour economics and I’m suddenly not that lazy anymore.

I started writing the assignment during the train ride from London to Amsterdam right after class because I was so excited. To be fair, the topic also felt like an easy way out as I’m usually struggling with papers and submit one minute before deadline, but in my defense, I’m juggling an MBA, a full-time job, a relationship AND a partnership in a new business that’s actually performing quite well. All in various geographies.

Weight loss is a huge and complex issue; anyone who’s ever tried to fit in a pair of jeans knows it. Behavior economics might not be the only answer, but it definitely could help at least curb the growth rate, as it’s basically a small set of steps people could take to lie to themselves positively.

Context

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 40% of adults in the United States were classified as obese between 2015 and 2016, taxing the medical system almost $150 Billion a year. The medical cost for an obese person in the US is about $1,429 higher than that one of a normal weight person.

Among adults, 20 to 39 years old, obesity affects 35%. Looking at the context and influence of cultural and socio-economic factors, the highest prevalence of obesity is among Hispanics (47.0%) and blacks (46.8%). Also, obesity prevalence is lower in high-income, college-educated, groups regardless of sex or ethnicity.

In terms of geographical distribution, Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi are the top three U.S. states with obesity rates of over 35%, whereas Colorado, District of Columbia and Hawaii are at the other end of the spectrum, with the rates as low as 21–22%.

We could argue that states deeply affected by obesity would require deep behavioral changes and more interventions than in states that are already more health-conscious, therefore the methods could be tested in a medium-scale state such as Connecticut (26%), Washington (27%) or Illinois (29%).

So what exactly are Americans thinking about weight loss?

  1. Healthy food is expensive
  2. Healthy food takes more time to prepare with a busy life
  3. Each body has a natural weight setpoint.
  4. If you don’t eat enough calories, your body enters ‘starvation mode’ — it preserves fat and you gain weight
  5. Weight loss cannot occur for some individuals, it’s all genetics. 97% of those who lose weight, gain it back and then some, in three years
  6. Doctors recommend diets so they can get insurance money

With the rise of connectivity, as 80% of Americans have internet access, people can find like-minded individuals easier and spread/consume ideas with no scientific basis. These factors, in overweight communities, have brought to life the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement, the Fat-Shaming phenomenon, and their spinoffs, increasing the bandwagon effect and making it even harder to adopt proper weight loss steps.

For example, on Tumblr and Reddit, popular online communities (Reddit only has over 500 million monthly visitors), the scientifically proven method of weight loss, Calories-in-Calories-out (CiCo), is constantly written off as just being a myth. It’s worth noting that such opinions and trends have given rise to mocking communities like ‘Fat logic’ which point out the faulty, illogical, ideas that prevent obese and morbidly obese people from losing weight.

People are more prone to overestimate the first piece of information they stumble upon and the content of that information is derived by their already made-up mind and perception.

Therefore, driven by a powerful confirmation bias mirrored in google search terms (as search results are manipulated by the user query), more and more Americans are subscribing to the fact that there is absolutely no way they will lose the weight and there’s nothing wrong with being obese.

Take a real-world example

Joan works in HR for a large company in Hartford, Connecticut. At nearly 30 years old, she’s easily pushing over 200 pounds but has made a New Year’s Resolution to lose weight and this time she means it. For the past couple of weeks, Joan has read blogs on weight loss, had a brush or two with Weight Watchers and even downloaded an app aimed at calorie counting.

But now and then, Joan is bound to have a busy or stressful day at work, which in turn can affect her food choices. Dan Ariely, who is more or less my celebrity crush, argued that the decision making process is impaired after people are faced with a hard task, so we can assume that Joan will go after the easy option (not dieting & even rewarding herself) after a bad day at work. (This behavior could easily be spotted in the tech/startup world where more and more C-level executives decide to have a ‘uniform’ — wear the same thing every day — so they can leave more brainpower for BIG decisions. Steve Jobs black turtleneck & jeans, anyone?).

Cats and decisions

So how can behavioral economics help Joan & the likes?

Gyms are traditionally asking for a one-year commitment at a lower price. Yearly subscriptions are great in terms of monetization strategies, but the number of workout sessions declines as distance is created between payment and time of consumption. Paying for something before consuming decreases the pain of paying therefore when the experience is happening a posteriori we tend to classify it as free. Don’t take my word for it, read ‘Dollars and Senses’. Yes, Ariely, again. In terms of workouts, getting a yearly subscription could make us think that subsequent workouts are free, therefore it’s less likely we’ll show up.

One way to tackle the decline in consumption, but still keep gym memberships under an umbrella decision, would be to send monthly reminders to members about what they are paying for. For example, the emails could contain statistics about subscription usage and a graph showing how price per session can decrease when consumption increases. I mean, who wouldn’t be motivated to show up if he or she would be three workouts away from reducing the cost to $6 per workout session.

Also, when signing up for a gym membership, new members can be asked to create a goal for themselves which could be used to give out constant reminders with key performance indicators. “Sign up for class x, y and z this week and you’ll be at 78% of your goal”. Kinda like a personal trainer, only…you know, not quite.

What about food?

In Romania, Lifebox.ro is already applying the umbrella principles and is freeing up its clients for more heavy decisions. The food service lets you choose between different types of menus (vegetarian, omnivore, vegan) and caloric intakes. More, you can’t order whenever you feel like it, which makes it easier to make ‘good’ decisions as you have to sit down and think about it (so no pressure).

If it’s not already in place, such a system can help as the decision-making process is complex and even the smallest of stressors can impact weight loss efforts.

So what now?

Obesity is becoming more and more of a worldwide problem and coming up with a ‘one size fits all’ solution is even harder in the American society where the emphasis is on the individual, apart from the masses. We also can’t be very strict about weight loss efforts as the ‘fat-shaming is bad’ movement is getting more and more adepts; diets and general slimming down activities are seen as ‘evil’ and society norms individuals should rise above and rebel against.
More, with the growing number of obese individuals, this is becoming normalized and some might feel even excluded from their peer group should they choose to take the weight loss route. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ (pun not intended) solution, but applying years of extensive research in the behavioral field could be a good start.

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