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Methods Matter When Working to Improve Public Health

Image of man and woman debating healthy beverage choices


Four social and personality psychologists will discuss the latest nudges and policies that encourage, or discourage, healthy behaviors in individuals.

Atlanta, GA - From sugary beverages to apple watches and retirement accounts, research sheds new light on social-psychological interventions to improve public wellbeing. Four social and personality psychologists will discuss the latest nudges and policies that encourage, or discourage, healthy behaviors in individuals at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention.

Improving Public Health

Cities, counties, states and even the Federal government work to find ways to encourage healthy behaviors. In daily calorie consumption, the average American consumes more than they need on a daily basis, leading to excess weight gain and associated health issues.

Grant Donnelly (Harvard Business School) and colleagues field-tested the effectiveness of graphic warning labels (vs. text warning labels, calorie labels, and no labels), to provide insight into psychological mechanisms driving effectiveness of changing people’s behaviors towards buying sugary beverages, often cited as a source of extra calories in the American diet.

Based on their research, "Graphic images depicting the health risks of sugar consumption reduce purchasing of sugary beverages,” says Donnelly, “Calorie and text warnings do not."  Donnelly will discuss the findings from a large scale field experiment where graphic warnings decreased purchasing of sugary beverages by over 15% -- a larger reduction than the effect of the sugary beverage tax implemented in Berkeley, California.

When Nudges Backfire

Sometimes things we do to try and improve people’s health and wealth have unintended affects. 

“Interventions aimed to promote people’s physical activity and health — such as guidelines, fitness apps, and wearables — often have unintended negative effects on individuals’ psychological mindsets.” says Octavia Zahrt (Stanford University), who will be presenting on Saturday.

Zahrt and her co-author Alia Crum recently published research on people’s mindsets about how physically active they are as compared to their peers. The team found individuals who perceived themselves as less active than others were up to 71% more likely to die in the follow-up period than those who perceived themselves as more active.

“If we want to ensure that interventions actually improve people’s health and wellbeing, we need to take into account their effects on mindsets,” summarizes Zahrt.

Nudges to encourage people to save for their future also need to be worded carefully, according to Hengchen Dai (University of California, Los Angeles). Dai and colleagues recently studied how language to encourage retirement savings affected individuals’ willingness to save immediately or save later. The research showed that wording they thought would encourage people to save actually caused them to ignore the suggestion.

"Our research highlights that it is important for managers, policy makers, and marketers to pilot test nudges and assess the implicit messages that may be unintentionally leaked by their design,” says Dai.

Advancing Research

Jon Jachimowicz (Columbia Business School) will round out the symposium to discuss and dispel common myths related to social and personality psychology field work. His research shows that default effectiveness varies widely; and loss framing is more effective when personal (vs. societal) losses are emphasized. Field applications of behavioral science therefore require clearer theoretical specifications to be effective.

The symposium, Leveraging Social-Psychological Insights to Promote Public Health and Wellbeing, takes place Saturday, March 3rd at 8 a.m. on the final day of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention.

News media may contact to request interviews with the speakers.

The SPSP Annual Convention brings together pioneers in the field of personality and social psychology to network, collaborate, and celebrate their science. The meeting serves not only as a platform for presenting and discussing the most recent breakthroughs in research but also as a spring board for collaboration between our members. 

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology promotes scientific research that explores how people think, behave, feel, and interact. With more than 7,500 members, the Society is the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world.

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