Automatic Health and Choice Architecture

06.09.22 |

The hidden forces that surround us and the structures we find ourselves in have a major impact on our tendencies and our ability to change and create new behaviors and habits. We make many of our choices by what is presented to us rather than from a conscious choice.

Your first reaction to that may be a feeling of powerlessness. If these choices are happening unconsciously, what hope do you have to turn those into healthy choices? The actual truth, however, is that the way our surroundings affect our choices gives us an incredible amount of power to build Habits of Health.

The Power of Choice Architecture

A study was done at a hospital cafeteria where they simply rearranged the position and amount of bottled water available to their patrons, and they moved the soda machines to a more remote area. In a three-month period, the consumption of water increased by almost 25% and decreased unhealthy soda selection dramatically – all without direct intervention.

Nobody was standing by the water convincing guests that it was the healthier choice. There wasn’t an education campaign sent to all hospital staff to teach them about the benefits of water. The simple change in location affected choice.

This is an example of the power of choice architecture, and it’s usually used against us. Grocery stores, restaurants, and fast-food restaurants all use choice architecture to boost profits, and most of the time, the most profitable path for the business is also the least healthy for its customers.

Checkout lines are surrounded by cheap “impulse buys,” like a bottle of soda or a candy bar. Restaurants are happy to invite you to sit at the bar while you wait for a table or to roll a dessert cart through the restaurant so that everyone can see the sugary treats they can order. And the self-serve soda machines at fast-food restaurants are big and bright and positioned right next to the checkout counter.

These invisible forces have been used against you all of your life, but you can harness the power of choice architecture to transform your health.

Habits of Healthy Surroundings

We want to look at the places you live, work, and play and make sure we modify those spaces to support your daily choices. With the right planning, we can make it easier to avoid triggered temptations and make the healthy choice more automatic.

At home, get rid of all the unhealthy foods in your pantries and buy only healthy foods when you go grocery shopping. The next time you get a craving for a snack, you will have only healthy foods at your fingertips.

At the office, toss your candy stash and get a reusable water bottle. More trips to the water fountain mean more steps, and drinking more water means fewer cravings. You could even upgrade to a standing desk for an even healthier workday.

And everywhere in between, from the friends you visit to the hobbies that occupy your time, you can make changes that surround you with healthy influences. That might mean more meetups at the park and fewer meetups at the bar, or maybe sign up for a charity walkathon and meet with other participants each week to get in shape for the big day.

Where to Start

You have thousands of options for improving your surroundings so that choice architecture works in your favor, but you don’t need to change everything all at once. Start small, and start with the places where you spend the most time, like your home or your work. When you make a change in these areas, the changes will be relatively permanent, which means they will positively influence you for every tomorrow to come.

Your surroundings are a big opportunity, so there is a lot to learn. Open your copy of Dr. A’s Habits of Health to page 148 to find the ideas that might be best for you.