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Could re-designing supermarkets, bars and restaurants "nudge" us towards healthy habits?

Press release issued: 16 January 2018

Behavioural and cognitive scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol today launched a new four year programme of research funded by a prestigious Wellcome Collaborative Award in Science to investigate ways to 'nudge' people towards healthier behaviour.

This includes improving diets, reducing alcohol consumption, and stopping smoking – in order to improve health across the population. The research will also investigate how best to implement this evidence.

There is growing evidence that behaviours such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating unhealthily are powerfully driven by messages and other cues in the environments that surround us.

This ambitious programme will systematically investigate the design of supermarkets, bars and restaurants to help make healthier behaviours more likely.

The research is made possible by an unprecedented set of collaborations that include the National Union of Students (NUS) and the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) to test interventions in field studies in supermarkets, bars and restaurants.

Laboratory studies to understand promising mechanisms will also be carried out alongside these real-world studies to ensure the changes have the best chance of success.

Izzy Lenga, NUS Vice President, said: "The National Union of Students is really pleased to be involved with this innovative new project running studies to find effective ways of changing subtle cues in bars that could help reduce excessive consumption of alcohol."

Jon Woolven, Strategy and Innovation Director at IGD, added: "The IGD is very pleased to continue our productive collaboration with the Cambridge team.

"Together, we’re testing a variety of interventions in staff cafeterias to identify the best ways to help people make healthier choices at work. This is just one strand of IGD's Healthy Eating programme, through which we’re working with companies on a range of activities to promote better health. As the Cambridge team extend their work into food stores, we look forward to further revealing insights."

The researchers, led by Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, will look at the effects of three different sets of interventions that show promise: changing the size and shape of food, alcohol and tobacco products (e.g. cigarette packets) and the tableware used to consume them (e.g. beer glasses), changing the availability and placement of food, alcohol and tobacco products, and the labelling of food and drinks.

Professor Marteau said: "Targeting conscious, intentional routes to prompt healthier behaviours by providing information to people – traditionally the most commonly used method – is rarely effective, particularly amongst the poorest groups in our society.

"By contrast, altering cues in the environment to change behaviour has the potential to deliver larger population-level effects that do not add to, or perpetuate, existing inequalities."

Marcus Munafò, Professor of Biological Psychology, from the University of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology, added: "We are targeting some of the most important modifiable causes of ill health – if people could be encouraged to eat more healthily, drink less, and stop smoking, the improvements in population health would be considerable.

"The novel combination of laboratory studies and field trials will allow us to make real advances in our understanding of how changing cues in our environment can promote healthier behaviour."

Mary De Silva, Head of Population Health at Wellcome, said: "By developing our understanding of how 'nudge' interventions such as product placement in shops, design and packaging can influence decisions, this project has the potential to lead to reductions in consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy food and drinks.

"Research in this area is a critical part of helping prevent non-communicable diseases such as heart attacks, obesity, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Wellcome is committed to supporting research to improve health and reduce disease and is proud to be supporting this exciting project."

Further information

'Behaviour Change by Design' is a Wellcome-funded Collaborative Award in Science bringing together a team of behavioural and cognitive scientists across the Universities of Cambridge and Bristol. Our aim is to run a series of field and laboratory studies to test the promise of a type of intervention – altering cues in our immediate physical environments – to promote healthier behaviour. Find out more on the website and watch an animation to learn more about the approach. Follow on Twitter @BehavChangeDsgn for updates.

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