BIU met with Professor Dan Ariely during his recent visit to Sydney. Professor Ariely’s research interests intersect with BIU, particularly in the areas of health, finance and morality.
Dan shared some of the projects he is working on including a project to overhaul food relabelling in Israel where food in supermarkets will be coded using a green/yellow/red system based on how healthy or unhealthy the item is. On another project, he also worked with the Israeli government to have savings accounts opened for children when they are born.
We also shared our recent results from the transport/flexible work trial and the domestic violence trials, with Dan and sought his creative advice on projects that are currently underway in BIU in the areas of behavioural finance and child obesity.
“Information itself does not work”
The BIU also attended a talk that Dan delivered at the School of Life where he discussed some of his recent experiments in promoting weight loss, including one where he tested a set of bathroom scales with no display. What may have seemed like a counter-intuitive idea actually turned out to be a success with those in his experiment who received the display-less scales losing 0.7% of their body weight on average compared to the control group which gained an average of 0.4% of their body weight over the same period (5 months). Those who received the display-less scales still received feedback about their weight, but it was less frequent and not in numerical form.
So why did less information work?
Dan’s display-less scales were effective because they promoted the beneficial aspects of the scales while leaving out the less helpful aspects.
Here are some of the valuable behavioural insights we can gain from his experiment:
- Daily rituals help us to remember our goals and overcome our present bias
- Present bias refers to our tendency to procrastinate – we give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time rather than a future time. Reminders can help us to overcome our present bias by forcing us to remember our long-term goals and make them more salient in the present moment.
- The act of stepping on the scales every morning can be such a reminder – it serves as a daily reminder of your intention to be healthy.
- Feedback is helpful, but too much negative feedback can and make us lose motivation
- Much like loss aversion (but in reverse), we feel the pain of gaining weight much more strongly than the enjoyment we feel when losing it. Dan called this “gain aversion” - on the days your weight goes up by a kilo, you feel really miserable but the days when your weight goes down by a kilo, you feel happy – but it doesn’t make up for it.
- As it’s normal for our weight to fluctuate daily, traditional scales are not an ideal feedback mechanism as the average experience is likely to be negative.
- Weekly feedback is more useful because it focuses on trends rather than daily fluctuations.
- Positive expectations when not met can lead us to give up too easily
- Dan talked about our tendency to be over-confident in anticipation of positive change. When we go on a diet for a day, we step on the scale the next morning expecting to see an improvement immediately. But typically that does not happen – our body is a biological advice that reacts slowly to changes. It can take 10 days to two weeks to react to something. So when results fail to meet our unrealistic expectations, we are demotivated and give up – or as Dan explained, we “go and have a day of cheesecake and Netflix” instead.
Dan’s scales have been so successful that they are now produced for sale – you can find out more here