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Choosing health: how do we encourage that?

Fundamental research teaches us how our brain decides to eat one more sweet, instead of doing exercise. A public information campaign about healthy lifestyle has little impact on the decision, as Professor of General Psychology Bernard Hommel is aware. However, he does know what works. But the question is whether we want that.

Those who want to live more healthily face many obstacles, and they themselves are the biggest of these. Those vegetables not only need to be bought but also cooked and eaten. We need to put on sports clothes, open the front door and leave home. These are all actions we need to decide on and then execute. The researchers at the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition investigate how we act, perceive and decide.

They do not have the ambition to return an individual to "normal". They are studying the differences between people, with the ultimate goal of developing resources where people who want to change can find help. The knowledge they gain is less suitable for basing general training or treatment methods on, but does help to adapt treatments to an individual's situation.

Motives often not the trigger for decisions

The knowledge of how people make decisions is useful for preventing illness. The Institute for Brain and Cognition has conducted research into the brain activity of test subjects while they are making decisions to determine if emotion or rationality was decisive in the decision.

In the case of emotional decisions, other parts of the brain are active than with rational decisions. It was the first time that both processes were investigated at the same time. Hommel believes that the processes are closely intertwined. But he also believes that the decision-making process is very different from what we ourselves think. For example, a person decides to take the stairs. He believes that he made that decision because he wants to be healthier. In fact, thinking about the reason is post hoc. After a subconscious decision has been taken, we consider a story for our decision to explain it to our environment. The actual trigger for the decision in our subconscious does not need to relate to that rational story.”

The design of an areacan motivate you to take the stairs instead of the escalator, as in this station in Hamburg. Most people do not realise this external motivating factor and think of a (logical) reason for taking the stairs, for example, because they want to stay fit.

Eating sweets

For an individual, it does not matter if he spins a yarn about the decision or if he is truly aware of the actual trigger. However, if the government wants to persuade people to meditate or to eat more healthily, then, according to Hommel, this leads to problems. “This is not the way to convince people. An awareness campaign can activate certain triggers in the brain and encourage the latent desire for a healthier life. But, at the same time, you still think sweets are delicious. You know you’ll get fat from them, but you eat them anyway.” Conditioning works well to adjust behaviour, but few people go to the therapist to condition themselves to eat more carrots and fewer sweets.

Then what does work?

According to Hommel, what works on a large scale is massive pressure from society. "We are very focused on the rights of the individual. Someone may be fat and we don’t want to hurt their feelings or discriminate against them. But the best trigger to convince fat people to eat less is to tell them that they are too fat. That's a negative trigger, but I'm afraid it's necessary to have a social dialogue on such a topic. We will have to limit individualism if we want to achieve certain social goals.”

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