Can Social Design Curb the Obesity Epidemic?

carrotCan various rules and rewards imposed upon society curb certain tendencies and encourage others? Can our environment be “engineered” to help change us and make being fit a bigger priority in our lives? A post on CalorieLab got me thinking about this, and I’m curious about others’ opinions on the topic.

As I wrote after reading the entry over there about the UK’s implementation of various incentives (bribes?) to prod citizens to make healthy changes, I couldn’t help but think of an article I read recently about online multiplayer games (like World of Warcraft). A lot of new players are scared off from them because, frankly, the more experienced players often act like complete jerks. However, this article posits that social design (which has been effective in getting people to curb using their cell phones in movie theaters, for example) can be effective in curbing undesirable behaviors in online gaming, too. It’s a very interesting read.

I wonder if the same principles of social and environmental design will be applied to issues related to obesity and fitness with good results. Looking at things in this light, I can see how the “bribes” the UK is offering might actually work, even if they can’t singlehandedly stem the tide of obesity. What do you think?


4 Responses

  1. Liz…first thank you for your kind words on my blog. I also wanted to ask you what the government is offering as a bribe? Here in the U.S. there is more of an emphasis being placed on childhood obesity, I wished it has been like that when I was young :-)

    I hope you are having a great week!


  2. In one sense, aren’t we already experiencing some attempts at social design in the US? workplaces offer subsidized weight watcher’s groups and/or gym memberships, insurance companies offer “bonus” coverage for completing a health profile and then workign with them to eliminate any “threat areas”. Or am I misunderstanding the concept? (Is possible as it’s new to me)

  3. I think it depends on what the bribe is. But for some nothing will be worth changing their lifestyle. I think when it comes to weight loss it has to come from within.

  4. Hi Brian! Good to hear from you. Direct quote from CalorieLab on the types of rewards being offered: Everything “from offering free bike maintenance to establishing fruit and veggie gardens in public housing. . . . The city of Manchester, however, has cut right to the chase with rewards cards, which accumulate points every time the user buys produce or other healthy food, or uses a public swimming pool, or works out with a personal trainer, or gets a medical screening, and so on.”

    Cammy: I think you’re right that we are starting to experience some pro-fitness social design over here in the US, albeit at a less aggressive level than it sounds like they’re doing in the UK.

    Natalia: I think you’re right about this in some cases; for instance, despite the fact that smoking has been socially designed to be discouraged and often inconvenient (banned even in bars in many cities now, for example; also, much more expensive than it used to be), there are still plenty of smokers. That being said, the percent of people in the US who smoke has declined *significantly* since the 1960s, and it seems likely that social and environmental design changes have played an important role in that.

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