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  • 16th Oct 2019

Don’t tell me what to eat!

Sustainable Diets - Blog 3 of 4

You can’t have any dessert until you’ve eaten your vegetables!”

– every parent ever

That’s a classic instance of paternalism, and one that most of us would find acceptable (toddler tantrums aside). But the role of a ‘nanny state’ in shaping our food choices is rather more contentious.

Our previous two blog posts outline the argument for intervention in food choices. In our first, we outlined the undeniable need – from an environmental perspective – to shift towards more plant-based diets. In our second, we showed that big changes in national diets are actually quite common, and our food choices are often deliberately influenced by governments and industry. Still, the prospect of the state meddling with our diets is not welcomed by everyone – our food preferences are so deeply personal, aren’t they?

Let’s bring some behavioural science to this question. We don’t have all the answers, but we think four key insights are particularly interesting:

1. Influence is unavoidable, and our choices are not “our own”.

It’s tempting to think our food choices reflect an immutable set of personal tastes. But as we’ve seen, they’re enormously influenced by the world around us, including our culture and upbringing, social norms, the availability of different options, marketing and the economy. The key question is not whether our diets should be influenced, but by whom, and in which direction, is influence most acceptable?

2. We don’t always know, or do, what we want.

Do you want to eat that cake? In the moment, most of us would say yes, but in the future, we would probably have wanted to restrain ourselves. When our preferences are so inconsistent, developing policy which maximises welfare and liberty is complex. Similarly, most of us claim we want to eat more sustainably than we actually do. A nudge which helps us overcome psychological and practical barriers to achieving that desire might therefore enhance both our welfare and liberty.

3. We rarely like change, until it’s happened.

Policy-makers should beware of human nature. We are all loss-averse and risk-averse, so downsides and uncertainties of a prospective change in policy loom large. But while smoking bans, congestion charges, and plastic bag levies were unpopular before they were implemented, they now enjoy widespread support once the benefits are apparent. The reality is, we’re adaptable, and things are rarely as bad as we fear. 

4. Sustainable diet policies are not actually paternalistic (though it might be better if they were).

While interventions on health grounds are primarily for our own benefit, those on environmental grounds are primarily for the good of society at large. This is an important distinction because it’s often conflated in public debate. It’s easy to argue against paternalism (“I should be able to smoke if want to!”), but difficult to argue that we have a right to harm or be harmed by others (“Do as you wish to your own lungs, but smoking in public endangers other people”). 

Does this mean government action on diets is more acceptable for sustainability than for health? Not according to public opinion. It turns out that self-interest is the important factor.

Pro-health nudges are relatively popular because they benefit us. Pro-environmental regulation is also relatively popular when imposed on others. For example, we expect governments to penalize fly-tippers, because most of us do not fly-tip, so we envisage ourselves on the victim side of these acts, and thus benefit from government intervention. In contrast, most of us enjoy eating red meat, so restriction of food choices feels imposed on us. While we want government to lead on action for the public good, we’re not keen to incur the costs ourselves.

So how do these insights help us create effective and acceptable sustainable food policy? We think there are 6 key strategies to pursue:

1. Find the sweet spot between effectiveness, and public consent. Pragmatism is key, and we need to start this journey in a way which maintains public buy-in.

2. In many ways this is the perfect issue for nudging. Nudges maintain freedom of choice, whilst removing barriers to more sustainable choices.

3. Help people help themselves. We know most people want to be more sustainable, but find it hard for reasons including willpower, knowledge, cost, and available options. Policy that helps people move in the direction they want is more acceptable than pushing them in a direction they don’t.

4. Highlight a policy’s benefits and effectiveness. Doing so helps overcome loss aversion, and boosts public support.

5. Create policy with the people. We’re a big fan of deliberative fora and citizens’ juries. They lead to a stronger mandate, build public understanding, maintain agency of the public, and often lead to better and broader ideas.

6. Co-opt the health agenda. Healthy diets are often more sustainable. There’s no reason to pursue diet change solely on a message of sustainability, given that health interventions are generally more acceptable.

This does not, of course, constitute a water-tight argument in favour of state intervention on public diets. That’s a conversation for elected officials and the public. However, we do hope it’s a reminder that behavioural science is about more than just nudging: it has a lot to offer on issues like public consent for policy, the origins of our “preferences”, and what we really mean by free choice.