Diabetes and will power

Those struggling to stick to their dieting and gym resolution might take comfort in scientists’ assertion that will power has very little to do with a person’s character. Professor Nick Chater of Warwick Business School asserts that the environment is a far bigger factor in determining whether people are able to stick to their diet or exercise regime. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo, he commented. “Conditions and the environment have more of an effect than we think they do. A ‘fundamental attribution error’ sees people consistently overweight people’s character as the determining factor [i.e that they have no will power]. We have to accept that external factors are very important. The environment we live in is nudging us one way or another, to buy or not to, to drink or not to, depending on what signals are present in the environment.”

As a Professor of Behavioural Science Chater has undertaken experimental work on how our will power is affected by the amount by which our memory is taken up by other things. He says, “Will power seems to require paying attention. If you are exerting a lot of will power in one dimension of your life, like dieting vigorously, then other areas of your life will tend to become slacker, so your will power is a finite source.”

Ed Gardiner, of the Behavioural Design Lab, a collaboration between Warwick Business School and the Design Council, believes sticking to a New Year’s resolution involves changing your own environment. She says, “We think our actions are simply the result of our own intentions, but actually they are influenced by many, many environmental factors. Once you understand those factors then you can start to manipulate them. Habits are formed by a link to a particular environmental cue. For example if you want to get fitter, choose a gym that is situated on your way home from work. If you want to quit drinking, don’t have wine in the fridge when you start cooking.”

Chater, who is also an advisor to the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (more commonly known the ‘Nudge Unit’) adds, “We can we can try to shape our interaction with the environment to give ourselves the nudges we want to have by trying to make sure you settle on a lifestyle and pattern of behaviour that puts you in a position to make the decisions you want to make.”

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