The following is a Ted Talk I wrote to be delivered at TedX Tallaght in October 2012. It was delivered by our CEO Liam Ryan. See video below.

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Changing Behaviours: We are more than Rational Robots

There is a major challenge facing the world right now: over the next 10 to 15 years we are projected to spend over 30 trillion dollars on chronic lifestyle diseases. These are diseases not caused by some virus, cancer or plague, or even some environmental disaster. They are caused by our own behaviours: our eating habits, our diets and our stressful lifestyles.

We don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, and too much sugar and fat. We do not physically move around the world enough. Instead we sit at desks or we stand at conveyor belts or behind counters. We drive everywhere and take elevators and escalators instead of climbing stairs. Nobody is forcing us to do this; yet we persist in the face of awful prospects. The result of this lifestyle is that huge numbers of us, and people we all know, are obese, have heart conditions, diabetes, and a plethora of other illnesses. We are “behaving” our way towards a life of misery, discomfort and unhappiness.

Yet, there is hope: none of this need happen. We can stop this future from unfolding as predicted. The fact that these diseases are caused by us means that they can be cured by us. By making simple changes to what we eat and how much we exercise, we can create a world of healthier, more energized, happier people who live longer. Plus, we can save trillions of dollars on healthcare spending and free up resources to deal with problems that are beyond our control, rather than on ones we are creating ourselves. What we are talking about here is behaviour change. Governments, technology companies, hospitals, and many more all across the globe are interested in figuring out how to help people to change their behaviours.

How do we do this? How do we get people to eat healthier food, exercise more and relieve high levels of stress and anxiety? One approach that has proved popular in the past is to simply tell people, directly and clearly, what the facts are. This is known as an information-based campaign: you communicate objectively with a certain population (national, employee based, schools, etc.) about the risks involved in certain behaviours, coupled with recommendations about what behaviours are better. The assumption on this kind of campaign is that people will recognise the value of the information and behave accordingly. In this way humans are treated like perfectly rational robots: input information, get desired outcome.

This approach is similar to the new quantified self movement. Many new devices have been created to track peoples behaviours (their steps, movements and their sleep). The idea is that by delivering detailed data (information) to the user will be enough to get them to act on this data and change their behaviours.

The problem is that such information based and data-driven programs are not getting the results they hoped for. Even in the face of objective, rational, information, humans often act contrary to what is in their best interest.

Who doesn’t know that an apple is healthier than a packet of crisps? Or that a glass of water is better for you than a can of coke? I claim that you would be hard pressed to find someone in the western world today that doesn’t know that a diet full or fruit and vegetables is better for your health than one full of fats, salts and sugars. Yet, obesity, diabetes and heart disease remain on the rise. Why is this?

Well, it is because we are not the perfectly rational robots that we have been assumed to be. Classical economics operated under the assumption that people are rational agents, and make certain choices based on what was best for them.

However, recent research in a new field – Behavioural Economics – suggests that the story of human behaviour is not so simple. Humans act and behave for a myriad of reasons that often go against their long term interests. These reasons could be social pressures, convenience, habit, loss-aversion, and just poor computation (we often put undue weight on recent events and too little of far-off ones). We might grab the mars bar because its cheap and conveniently placed in the vending machine down the hall; many people smoke for the short term rush, ignoring the long-term harm, etc.

Any attempt to effect lasting behaviour change on groups and individuals needs to appreciate these complex and subtle factors that influence how we act. This is not to say that data and information are not important and necessary. They help to map out the right path of action, but they are insufficient when it comes to getting people to actually get walking on that path. This is where behavioural science comes in. To inspire people to change takes more than the bare facts.

Now that we have mapped out the issues and can see that human being are more complicated than it may first seem, what do we do? How do we take these insights from behavioural economics and create practical ways to encourage people to change their health habits? Well we have been asking ourselves that very question. And this is what we have come up with:

There are four key factors we have found that when incorporated into health program, help to create lasting behaviour change.

1. Simple, easy, and convenient tasks: create tasks that are in small chunks of doable activities. It is much better to say “try walk for ten minutes today” instead of abstract lofty goals like “do more exercise” or “eat healthier”. Given the long-term nature of health improvements, it is necessary to break down the journey into something that seems doable every day; only then can you build something into a habit.

2. Personalize the advice: as much as you can, try give advice that is particular to an individual. Research shows that people are much more likely to respond positively if they feel the advice is specific to them. Mobile and online devices offer a way to do this that has never before been seen. This is also where the tracking data from quantified self can be helpful. Taking in this data, interpreting it, and offering back meaningful advice in a simple and personalised way will lead to more enthusiastic users.

3. Make the program interactive and social: Again, mobile and online devices help to create virtual communities that can offer real-time support and motivation. Through equal measures of collaboration and competition, people can be both supported and helped in times of need, and motivate to defeat colleagues and friends. As Aristotle said, we are inherently social beings: its what defines us.

4. Finally make it fun and rewarding: If the attempt at behaviour change is not fun, then people will be less likely to do it. Sure, there are programs that present themselves as ‘no pain no gain’ but these suit only a small number of people. Basically, most people don’t like doing things they don’t enjoy. Furthermore, there is much scientific evidence to suggest that people adapt and behave in ways that reward and reinforce positive emotions and thoughts.

These are the four factors that we believe should be a part of any attempt to create real lasting behaviour change. Throwing facts and figures at the problem is only the beginning. Combine these insights with the opportunities afforded by the ubiquity of smart phones and the accessibility of tracking and measuring devices and you can see we are on the cusp of something great. Keep the data in the background, and reveal the insight. If we can balance these factors and create something that people enjoy using, we can solve one of the greatest problems facing the world today.