Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Avocado, Chia and all things Quinoa…

The safe haven that once used to be the supermarket aisle has now become a confusing place, a shrine to clean eating, promising energy, happiness and healthiness. Never before have we been so obsessed with clean eating, from sweet potatoes to acai berries to the all too loved coconut oil. But is this faith one to be worshipped or feared?                                                                                                      

Leading the way are the so-called health and wellness bloggers that have all somehow developed a sudden intolerance to gluten, wheat and dairy. A little bit of a coincidence isn’t it?
But why do we seem to be falling for this new health craze, with its extortionate prices and bland tastes?
As the availability heuristic explains, the more accessible things are in our mind, the more likely we are to choose them. Agenda setting theory is a form of availability heuristic explaining that it is essentially the News, which influences the perceived importance of things through the use of repetition and emphasis. Therefore, as soon as we read something, we form a biased opinion of it. Thus with hundreds of thousands of followers on every social media outlet, it is no surprise that an increasing number of people are turning to these bloggers for guidance, making it almost impossible to check your Instagram without being bombarded with some new healthy diet. 
Yet, it seems bizarre that we automatically trust these bloggers, the majority of whom don’t even hold a qualification in nutrition or fitness. We are prone to judgmental heuristics such as credibility bias in that we assume that these bloggers are experts in the field of health and food, ignoring any arguments or concerns we may initially have and automatically allowing ourselves to be convinced solely by their status (Cialdini, 2009). For instance, how many times have you thought that if something is expensive, it must be a good product? Many times right? This is exactly how we think that ‘if an expert said so, it must be true’. In some cases, they may well be telling the truth, but at other times their advice may cause us to make costly mistakes (especially if you’re on a student budget but can only buy gluten and wheat free edamame spaghetti).
Fig 1. Ratings of 'goodness' of Chinese characters
Another reason is that of mere exposure, as proposed by Zajonc (1968). According to this theory, the more exposed we are to things; the more favourable they are seen. For example, in his study he found that after participants saw a range of made up Chinese characters, the characters they saw more were rated as more ‘good’ compared to characters they saw less. Accordingly, being constantly surrounded by all this information on new fad diets and health foods makes us more likely to succumb to them and fail the urge to resist buying the last sugar, carb, gluten and dairy free chocolate cake. 
The elaboration likelihood model is a dual process model of persuasion that explains how certain influences can lead to different impacts on a person’s attitudes and behaviours (Li, 2013). There are two possible routes that one may take, the central route, which requires one to take part in systematic, critical and effortful thinking, or the peripheral route, which involves using simple automatic cues without effortful thinking. The more thought and elaboration that goes into making a decision, the more likely it is to trigger stronger attitude and behaviour change (Boyce & Kujjer, 2014). Therefore, in terms of this healthy eating craze, it seems that people who are less motivated may use cues such as one’s perceived credibility in order to arrive at a decision whereas those that are more invested are more likely to have a sustained change in behaviour and stick to ‘clean-eating’.
Of course we always want to make sure that we are doing things that other people are, keeping up with trends and not feeling left out. Social influence and in particular, normative social influence plays a major part in how we are persuaded by the behaviour and expectations of others in order to conform to the norm of society (Li, 2013). If all your friends are out there buying almond milk and you purchase the forbidden semi-skimmed, then be prepared to face some serious social segregation. So regardless of our beliefs and attitudes, we are under high levels of social pressure to conform to certain behaviours and before deciding whether to accept and carry out this behaviour ourselves, we first observe successful experiences encountered by others (Li, 2013). As Mcferran, Dahl, Fitzsimons and Morales, (2010) found, when a confederate set up a norm, other participants conformed to the norm so either ate more or less, depending on what the confederate’s norm was. Moreover, as the group size increases, people increasingly conform to the group norm, demonstrating how an anchor set up by others can be highly influential when making our own decisions. I mean if Sophie lost 3 stone by eating apples for a week, then surely it’ll work for me too right?
The theory of planned behaviour can also be used to explain why the masses are following the clean-eating hype. It is based on the foundation that the best predictor of actual behaviour is the behaviour that a person actually intends to carry out. It involves three key components; a person’s attitude towards the specific behaviour i.e. clean-eating, subjective norms, which involves beliefs about what others expect us to do and finally perceived behavioural control, the degree to which a person has control over their own behaviour. If one has more favourable attitudes towards a specific behaviour as well as more favourable subjective norms and greater perceived behavioural control, this strengthens their intentions to perform the behaviour and so they will engage in this clean-eating obsession.
So there we have it, don’t join this health fixation if you don’t want to, but there will be enough influences surrounding you to persuade you to do so. 
After all, who can resist a bit of avocado on toast?

Boyce, A. J., & Kuijer, G. R. (2014). Focusing on media body ideal images triggers food intake among restrained eaters: A test of restraint theory and the elaboration likelihood model. Eating Behaviors, 15, 262-270.

Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Boston: Pearson Education.

Li, C. Y. (2013). Persuasive messages on information system acceptance: A theoretical extension of elaboration likelihood model and social influence theory. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 264-275.

Mcferran, B., Dahl, D. W., Fitzsimons, G. J., & Morales, A. C. (2010). I’ll have What She's Having: Effects of Social Influence and Body Type on the Food Choices of Others. Journal Of Consumer Research, 36, 915-929.
Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1–27.

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