Do you have a great nudge to improve complementary feeding behaviors?
The idea of making small changes in “choice architecture” to steer people toward making particular choices – so-called nudges – has seeped into many areas of life and discussions of social behavior change. But not so much for complementary feeding.
A cursory review reveals that the explicit use of nudges for complementary feeding behaviors is exceedingly rare. However, to be fair, referring to “a nudge for complementary feeding” obscures a critical point: complementary feeding is not a single behavior, it’s a complex set of behaviors that change over time, as our “challenges” Inspire piece makes clear.
Consequently, a “nudge for complementary feeding” is not going to be a nudge for complementary feeding – it’s going to be a nudge for a specific feeding behavior at a specific time.
We know nudges in complementary feeding must exist – by definition, nudges are invisible pushes toward certain choices.
What is a nudge?
A “nudge” is an intervention that steers people toward a desired action. Behavioral economists Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler popularized the idea with their book Nudge in 2008, pointing out that we experience nudges routinely in our daily lives: they’re right there, embedded in the “choice architecture” of daily life.
People do not make every decision consciously – we are all guided by a variety of cues in our environment, some obvious and some completely hidden. We can be steered toward certain choices, in a way not unlike what road builders do when they put up guardrails, paint lines on a road and erect signs. But in every situation where we make choices, we experience nudges.
In their book, Sunstein and Thaler, behavioral economists, explained nudges as any aspect of choice architecture that did not force people to make a particular decision – leaving them free to choose, say, an option that many might see as inadvisable – and did not alter their economic incentives. You can read a short summary of the concept here.
Steering people toward particular decisions, they argued, is in the broader public interest: nudges are already there, steering decisions in any situation, their thinking went; so why not harness them to positive effect?
“To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid,” Sunstein and Thaler wrote. “Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.” Fortifying foods that people consume regularly, for example fortifying salt with iodine, could be classified as a “nudge” today.
This thinking has led to a variety of efforts to do exactly that. Not long after Nudge was published, Sunstein became the director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. The influence of Nudges similarly has spread and a number of governments and institutions have set up “nudge units”: working groups aimed at leveraging behavioral insights to achieve various ends.
In July, Sunstein was named chair of the World Health Organization’s new technical advisory group on behavioral insights and sciences for health. But it is misleading to call it a nudge unit; nudges are just one technique among many that have emerged from behavioral research. He is, indeed, leading a diverse international multi-disciplinary team that includes anthropologists, neuroscientists, marketing and communications experts, etymologists and behavioral economists, among others.
The idea of nudges “is something people can grab on to,” said Elena Altieri, WHO Technical Officer for Behavioral Insights, who leads the behavioral and social sciences unit and who worked on establishing the working group. She said the working group’s diversity – in terms of geography, gender, and discipline – will allow it to consider a variety of insights and formulate ideas on how to apply them across WHO’s similarly very diverse scope of public health efforts.
“Is there a health topic where behavior does not play a fundamental role in the outcomes we are seeking?” Altieri said. “Behaviors are at the heart. We are complementing what we know about biomedical evidence with behavioral evidence. That’s what we’re advocating for.”
What we want from you
In short, nudges alter the environment so that automatic cognitive processes are triggered to favor a desired outcome. Can nudges be applied to the more complicated behaviors involved in feeding a child?
We turn to you Inspire readers: Have you used nudges in your complementary feeding work? Or have you seen nudges used in other areas that could be used to address a complementary feeding behavior? We hope you will contribute your ideas on social media or in the comments section below. We will compile and evaluate the ideas and then write them up in a future Inspire column.
Use the comments section below to share your ideas or join the conversation on social media using the #Inspire4SBC hashtag.
We’ll compile a list of the nudge ideas we receive and a panel of our experts will decide which are most promising! While we do not have a prize, we urge you to share your ideas for the simple satisfaction of knowing you are helping your fellow nutrition practitioners improve their programs and activities!