Skip to main content
About HEC About HEC Faculty & Research Faculty & Research Master’s programs Master’s programs MBA Programs MBA Programs PhD Program PhD Program Executive Education Executive Education Summer School Summer School HEC Online HEC Online About HEC Overview Overview Who
We Are Who
We Are
Egalité des chances Egalité des chances Career
Center Career
International International Campus
Life Campus
Sustainability Sustainability Diversity
& Inclusion Diversity
& Inclusion
Stories Stories The HEC
Foundation The HEC
Coronavirus Coronavirus
Faculty & Research Overview Overview Faculty Directory Faculty Directory Departments Departments Centers Centers Chairs Chairs Knowledge Knowledge Master’s programs Master in
Management Master in
MSc International
Finance MSc International
Masters Specialized
programs X-HEC
programs Dual-Degree
students Visiting
Certificates Certificates Student
Life Student
Stories Student
MBA Programs MBA MBA Executive MBA Executive MBA TRIUM EMBA TRIUM EMBA PhD Program Overview Overview HEC Difference HEC Difference Program details Program details Research areas Research areas HEC Community HEC Community Placement Placement Job Market Job Market Admissions Admissions Financing Financing Executive Education Executive Masters Executive Masters Executive Certificates Executive Certificates Executive short programs Executive short programs Online Online Companies Companies Executive MBA Executive MBA Summer School Youth Programs Youth Programs Summer programs Summer programs HEC Online Overview Overview Degree Program Degree Program Executive certificates Executive certificates MOOCs MOOCs Summer Programs Summer Programs


Public Health: How to Encourage People to Lead a Healthier Lifestyle

Decision Sciences
Published on:
Updated on:
January 15th, 2021

To fight against health problems like obesity, smoking, and alcohol abuse, governments are experimenting with new ways of regulating lifestyles. These methods, or incentives, usually involve a “nudge” that takes advantage of the irrational patterns in human behavior to encourage people to make the least harmful choices for their health.

woman in a field

Health risk factors include hidden fats and sugars in processed foods, as well as cigarettes and alcohol. When consumed in excess, they can cause diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart problems, and chronic respiratory problems, which are responsible for more than half of deaths worldwide. To fight against this increasing phenomenon, public policy makers are trying out new approaches to modify lifestyle habits. A new type of measure has emerged, which seeks to take into account how people actually behave, and not how they are expected to behave as rational agents. Alberto Alemanno, who has focused on the particular case of tobacco, does not beat around the bush: “A growing number of studies show that human beings do not always act in a way that maximizes their interests, making decisions, for example, that lead to short-term pleasure but do not take into account long-term negative effects.”

The gentle nudge

The nudge approach is based on findings in behavioral research, which draws on economics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology. It aims to gently encourage [nudge] individuals to make better decisions while maintaining their freedom of choice. As such, managers take advantage of patterns of irrationality to shape the context and decision-making process to influence choices. This can mean, for example, presenting food in a cafeteria so that people choose salad, fruit, and vegetables rather than foods with poor nutritional quality. This form of governance, which is based on “choice architecture,” is still in the experimental phase. The Conservative- led government in the UK is the only one to date to have created an administration to implement the approach.

The fight against smoking

The nudge method holds promise for the fight against smoking. Many countries worldwide have gradually established regulation that is now universally accepted. But smoking remains the leading cause of avoidable deaths in both the developed world and in emerging countries. The nudge approach could help to work out the contradictions of traditional methods where by states encourage citizens to stop smoking by multiplying publicity campaigns and by increasing taxes, while at the same time organizing the official sale of tobacco and financing a good portion of their budget through taxation. When it comes to tobacco, the traditional “command and control” method is necessary to restrict access to the product, by banning smoking in public places, for example. The first objective is to reject smoking as normal, acceptable behavior, and to make it a quasi-deviant behavior; as a second step, the nudge reinforces changes to the social norm. While a nudge modifies behaviors in a predictable way, it should not exclude any options, nor does it need to change economic incentives. For example, some governments are studying new radical measures, like the standardization of neutral cigarette packaging with no logo, and the prohibition of branded products on the shelves of tobacconists [tobacco shops] with purpose of countering industry marketing efforts and reducing the visual impact of their brands. The product itself, however, remains perfectly legal.


A growing number of studies show that human beings do not always act in a way that maximizes their interests.


Can the method be extended to food and alcohol?

The debate today is on whether or not a similar approach, of “enabling while discouraging,” can be extended to other areas such as the fight against alcoholism, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise. “The legitimacy of state intervention is more problematic for food and alcohol,” says Alemanno. “Tobacco, unlike food, is not a vital need. And what further complicates the regulation of unhealthy food is that consumption patterns are just one factor among several others—physiological, genetic, even socio-economic—which, according to scientists, promote obesity.” In Western societies, it is generally agreed that individuals should be free to choose their own lifestyle, even if they decide to make high-risk choices. The argument is particularly strong when it comes to alcohol and foods high in fat and sugar, which have associations with celebrations and other social rituals deeply rooted in Western culture. In the case of tobacco, the problem was resolved by shifting the debate from the rights of smokers to the rights of non-smokers who were being exposed to second-hand smoke.

Is it right to manipulate people?

Nudges and traditional interventions usually combine forces, making it difficult to measure the impact of either on a particular policy. “Empirically, we see a decline in consumption, but how do you know if it is due to this or that nudge or to an increase in taxes on tobacco?” questions Alemanno. Moreover, if nudges are transparent, they may fail, as people do not like to feel they are being manipulated, even if it is for their own good. Alemanno also raises the risk of the “tyranny of health”: “Obsessed by the need to adopt a healthy lifestyle, individuals risk stressing out so much when they miss their gym class or daily jog that it cancels out the benefits obtained.”

What are the Implications for Leaders?

Image - Social Networks
It is in the areas where the need to regulate is largely accepted, like smoking and obesity, that these kinds of policies get the best results. Other examples could be the environment [recycling], or even the fight against tax evasion. Experience shows that it is more effective to combine nudges with traditional regulations. Alemanno also stresses that it is “crucial to work with the private sector, to convince companies to change their habits.” The latter “do not have a choice,” he says, citing the restrictions on ads directed at children and the use of trans fatty acids. The public now seems to be aware of the downside of junk food; the Olympics in London marks the first time the sponsorship of sporting events by companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola was heavily criticized.

Whats is Nudge?

Literally, to nudge means “to push someone with an elbow,” or “to prod someone to do something.” In their authoritative book Nudge [Yale University Press, April 2008], Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein explain the concept in terms of paternal libertarianism: “a relatively moderate, flexible, and non-invasive version of paternalism, which does not prohibit anything nor does it limit an individual’s options; it is a philosophical approach to public or private governance, which aims to help people make decisions that improve their lives without affecting the freedom of others.”
Based on an interview with Alberto Alemanno and his talk on “Regulating Lifestyle: the case of unhealthy diets, alcohol and tobacco” at the conference “How companies can contribute to sustainable development issues?” at HEC Paris, June 21, 2012.

Related content on Decision Sciences

viral videos - AdobeStock_Editorial_Use_Only
Information Systems

When Videos Become Viral: Why, How and What Consequences?

By Haris Krijestorac

donald trump and doctors - vignette - PICRYL
Decision Sciences

How Believing in Unsubstantiated Claims Leads to Polarization

By Anne-Sophie Chaxel

black swan on a lake - vignette - Tatiana-AdobeStock

A New Theory in Economics Helps Predict Future Events

By Itzhak Gilboa

Fan Wang Profile
Fan Wang
Ph.D. Student
Itzhak Gilboa
Decision Sciences

Uncertainty Across Disciplines

By Brian Hill

Subscribe button for Knowledhe@HEC newsletter

Newsletter knowledge

A monthly brief in your email box and 3 issues of the book per year.

follow us

Insights @HECParis School of #Management

Follow Us

Support Research

Our articles are produced thanks to our reader's support