Shaping policy – the Behaviour and Health Research Unit
Most people value their health yet behave in ways that undermine it, principally by being inactive, eating and drinking too much, and smoking.
Together, these behaviours are responsible for the majority of premature deaths worldwide and disproportionately affect those from lower socioeconomic groups.
“Our research draws upon recent developments in understanding behaviour from psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics,” says Director of the BHRU, Theresa Marteau. “We are therefore paying particular attention to impulse and habit rather than to rational, reflective drivers of behaviour. In particular we are studying the importance of environments in influencing behaviour, most often outside people’s awareness.”
Among the studies being conducted by the Behaviour and Health Research Unit (BHRU) in the Institute, is one examining the decisions people make concerned with food purchasing and consumption.
What influence does the retail environment have on the nutritional profile of food purchased by the shopper?
Through analysis of large data sets, the BHRU is assessing the influences of and interactions between the shoppers, the food where the product is located in the store. Elements of these factors might include the relative wealth of the shopper, the price, promotion and healthiness of the food, and where the food is located on the aisle. This novel analysis will inform experiments to describe the key features of retail environments that maximise healthier food purchasing.
Does the visual and verbal presentation of some foods lead to overconsumption?
Images of fruit and vegetables are increasingly used to market unhealthy foods. Labels such as “organic” or “natural” are also used with such foods to imply healthiness. The BHRU aims to identify the characteristics of food images and labels that lead people to under-estimate calories in food and hence, possible overconsumption. To do this, the unit is are conducting a series of experiments in which participants estimate the calorie content of a range of energy-dense, nutrition-poor foods accompanied by various images of fruits or vegetables, with different labels. The presentations that result in the lowest and highest levels of underestimation will be used in subsequent studies to assess the impact of calorie underestimation on consumption.
Can activating healthy eating goals lead to healthier food purchasing?
Most people value healthy eating but this is not reflected in the food they buy. By activating healthy eating goals using “primes” (images or other stimuli to activate pre-existing thoughts and actions) the Unit will assess whether activation leads to healthier purchasing. Initial studies will be conducted using a virtual online supermarket. Participants will see different images on the online supermarket to test whether priming healthy eating goals results in healthier food purchasing.
The findings from BHRU research will inform UK policy and contribute to international understanding of human behaviour and behaviour change.