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.

Are some behavioural insights easier to stomach than others?

Every so often, when I’m running workshops on using insights from behavioural sciences, I’m struck by how the reaction to some effects differs from others. I’ve mentioned this before in relation to the use of smileys.

And I think I’ve noticed that, in public services and policy, some effects have been used more readily than others. The example of organ donation, with policy makers in England choosing to use exposure effect and those in Wales using defaults is a good example.

So I now have a theory: that there are some behavioural effects that can be understood and accepted even with the ‘rational-agent’ model. Of course people are more likely to do something if you make it the thing that happens unless they act! And of course people are more likely to do something if you ask them to do it! I can believe these two things without accepting that my instincts are perfectly adapted to an environment very unlike the one I live in.

I hadn’t really put two and two together when I did my talk last week for Political Innovation. I don’t think it would have changed my argument, but it might have made it more nuanced.

So, is there a set of insights from behavioural sciences that decision makers (and people generally) are more comfortable with, because they don’t fundamentally challenge our learned understanding of what people are like (that is, basically in control of our actions, and largely acting with purpose)? And a set that are more troubling, because they alert us to how driven we are by herd instincts and evolutionary imperatives? The latter set would include hyperbolic discounting, social proof and many others.

Am I on to something? Is this a new insight, or so obvious that no-one has bothered to point it out? Or does this sort of analysis already exist? Let me know.