Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours

The planet.

In this lecture, we heard from Professor Michèle Belot (School of Economics) about her research relating to behavioural economics, which is the study of why and how people make economic decisions, and how this plays out in health behaviours.

Behavioural economics recognises that humans do not always behave entirely rationally, but still works from the basis that we are not so irrational as to render the model of the rational actor as useless. As such, it is important to consider multiple possible biases and motivators in the context of important decisions such as those that impact our health.
Belot researches health behaviours, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and unhealthy diets, that increase the risk of getting chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. She has studied incidences of these diseases and how they appear within society in correlation with income and education.

Globally, we see a trend towards more deaths from chronic diseases among poor and less educated sections of society, which is the case across both rich and poor countries. This overturns the myth that chronic diseases are diseases of affluence, but also leaves us with the then knottier problem of how to escape this situation.
Professor Belot spoke about some of the different biases that can affect people’s decision-making. Present Bias leads us to choose the option that gives us most reward at the time of choosing, heavily discounting the future. Status quo and endowment bias leads us to value things that we stand to lose more highly than something we wish to gain, i.e. the pleasure of smoking a cigarette carries a higher ‘price’ than the long term benefits of avoiding smoking-related illnesses.

Context effects can also cloud our judgement, so we are likely to choose a certain option based on its comparison with the other options available. This could mean we’re prone to choose the healthier food option when there are only two choices and one is clearly healthier, but if there is one healthy option surrounded by multiple unhealthy options, this normalises unhealthy foods and makes us more likely to choose one of them.
So where do we go from here? With regards to health, the initial epidemic of chronic diseases and the number of biases that are leading people to choose food and lifestyle options linked with diseases, there are a number of policy implications.

There’s the possibility of using ‘nudges’ to influence behaviour, so choices aren’t limited, but are differently framed to encourage positive health choices. There are also various incentives and taxes which can be used, along with straightforward information campaigns as a first step to educating people on health specifics.
If Behavioural Economics and Belot’s research can provide useful insight into health behaviours, it may also be able to help us in encouraging people to make lifestyle choices that are positive for the environment, and to understand why this is not necessarily the case already.

It certainly gives us some food for thought when thinking about how we can make the University as a whole more socially responsible and sustainable, and the influence of the daily choices we make on the overall organisation and community, as well as the planet as a whole.

Our Changing World lectures look at global challenges facing society and the role of science and academia in addressing them. See the Global Academy website for more details of the upcoming lectures.

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