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A gentle nudge to better health?

Posted on April 30, 2014 by Lethbridge Sun Times

Nobody likes to be pushed into doing something, even when it’s in their best interests, and such efforts to coerce usually don’t work anyway. But sometimes a subtle nudge can prove effective.

That’s the idea behind a conference called “Nudging” Towards a Culture of Change which the Conference Board of Canada has organized for May 6-7 in Kanata, Ont. The conference’s goal is to examine the concept of “nudging” as a positive tool for social improvement.

An article on the Conference Board of Canada website titled “‘Nudging’ to Change Health Behaviours,” by David Verbeeten, the board’s Research Associate, Health Innovation, Policy, and Evaluation, explains, “Without resort to undue financial incentives, prohibitions, or coercion, individuals can be gently guided into fairly predictable action by attention to cues within their environment. This is the essence of a nudge. Using experts to redesign the contexts in which choices are made, individuals can be encouraged to make better decisions about what they eat and buy, when they exercise, and how they spend and save.”

As an example, Verbeeten cites a professor at New Mexico State University who used yellow tape and a sign to designate one section of supermarket shopping carts for fruits and vegetables, and the rest for other items. It resulted in a large increase in the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

Verbeeten notes, “While the United Kingdom and United States have moved forward with a nudging agenda in the last few years, Canada lags behind on this trend.” Next month’s conference is designed to get Canada moving in that direction. The Conference Board will also discuss the topic in a live Twitter chat taking place April 30 from 11 a.m.-noon MST, moderated by Andreas Souvaliotis (@souvaliotis), a Canadian social entrepreneur, author and public speaker.

The aim of this “nudging” idea is to help Canadians make better choices that can reduce the chronic conditions which negatively impact health care, work productivity, the economy and ultimately our society. By using behavioural research to develop policies that can nudge people in the right direction, it’s hoped that will lead to healthier lifestyles and improved health among the Canadian populace.

Organizations taking part in the “Nudging” conference include the Canadian Alliance for Sustainable Health Care, the Centre for the Advancement of Health Innovations, the Council for Innovation Procurement in Health Care, and the Council on Workplace Health and Wellness. The conference will feature international experts who will share information about how behavioural science concepts like nudge theory can be used to influence people’s decisions, and the application of nudge theories in the context of workplace wellness, population health and health-care services.

Nudge theory, which seems to be what was referred to in the old days as “the power of suggestion,” is an interesting concept. How effective it can be in terms of influencing healthier lifestyle choices on a large scale remains to be seen, but it’s a worthwhile goal. And anything that can help make Canadians healthier might be worth a try.

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