Food labelling: another example of needing behaviour-smart policy-makers

The current news about a new food labelling system, ably covered by Ed Gardiner in his blog for the Behavioural Design Lab, reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s telling point in Thinking Fast and Slow in reference to food labelling in the US. Given the chance, marketing people will prefer to label a food as “90% fat-free”, rather than “10% fat”, because we’ll be more likely to buy it. They’re framing the information in a positive way; for the same reason, we’re more likely to consent to a medical procedure with a 99% survival rate than one with a 1% death rate – though they are, of course, the same operation.

This gives me another chance to say something that, I hope, bears repeating: we need people in policy-making and service-design roles who have a good understanding of decision sciences. If not, we don’t do public services and relationships as well as we might; or, worse, in the public health context, it can mean that those with more interest in short-term sales than health outcomes are able to run rings round policy-makers.