Christopher Warton: Hi everyone. My name is Chris Wharton. I’m an Associate Professor of Nutrition here at Arizona State University. I’m also Interim Director of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.
So let me start off by providing a brief description of an otherwise nondescript day in the life of an average American. This person gets up in the morning, quickly gets ready then hops in the car for her twenty or so minute commute to the office. She stops by Starbucks, gets to the office, then sits down at her desk to work at her computer.
Around midday she’s hungry, so she heads out to lunch at a nearby cafe. And comes back to the office to finish up her work. After a pretty long day, she’s ready to head home. But you know, she’s tired. So she grabs some dinner on the way home, then gets back, relaxes in front of the TV before heading off to bed.
Now none of that sounds out of the ordinary, or concerning in any way. But, I contend, it’s completely shocking. You see, we live in the Matrix. And if you remember that movie, there’s a character Morpheus who offers to another character Neo a blue pill or a red pill. Take the blue pill, and go back to everyday life. Take the red pill, and see the world for what it actually is. I’m offering you the red pill.
And here’s what the red pill would show you. Americans spend more time in their cars then they do outside. Watch thirty-five hours of television a week. Spend more money on food away from the home than they do on groceries. And, waste a third of the food produced in the US. And that wasted food represents $640 of lost value at the household level annually. And it represents the third-largest source of manmade methane emissions at the national level.
The majority of Americans are also indebted, have less than a thousand dollars of retirement savings, and if faced with a $500 emergency would have to take out a loan or sell something to manage the cost.
In other words, we live in a world of wild, damaging, unsustainable excess. We’re surrounded by unhealthy food options. We live in places built for cars, not for walking or biking. We’re buried in our screens 24⁄7. We face calls to buy stuff, endlessly. And we live in a consumer culture that is dependent on the notion of disposal.
But here’s the thing. These excesses are so fully normalized, they so fully meet our expectations of how everyday life ought to look, that we no longer really see them as excessive at all. They simply hide in plain sight. As a result, we eat poorly, we move too little, we spend too much, we damage the environment along the way, and all of these as our default behaviors.
So what’s been the response to this unfortunate situation? Well, when it comes to almost any behavior change, specialists often suggest this baby steps approach. Doing one little thing at a time, and then building up slowly but surely from there. And that’s probably because that’s how we do our research. We take this reductionist approach to behavior, like we would any other type of experimental research.
The problem, however, is that if we live in a world of excess, then changing one small thing at a time will simply do nothing for many. Why? Because the whole of the environment around us, and the rest of our lifestyles, is still built to support the behavior that we used to engage in, not the new one that we’re trying to achieve.
So what’s the solution? Well, if excess is the problem, simplicity is the solution. And, if excess is pervasive then changing small things one at a time simply won’t cut it. In fact, I contend, a possible route of greater success is to change everything, all at once. That sounds counterintuitive—and, hard, right. But, recent research has shown we’re far more adaptable to change, even dramatic change, than we give ourselves credit for. And it’s possible that making multiple changes in key behaviors, including screen time, transportation, eating, moving, and spending, could synergistically work together not only to help changes persist but to have simultaneous positive impacts in multiple areas of life, including health, wealth (or financial security), happiness, and sustainability.
So my lab at ASU is now investigating this approach to lifestyle-wide behavior change. And we’re just beginning to find some interesting results. The key is values-based behavior. Values like good health, living sustainably, connecting to community. These are all important not just to one behavior, but to many behaviors at once. It turns out when people choose behaviors based on their values and not on the excessive norms that are so common, behavior changes become more important, more impactful, and possibly more persistent. And often these values are based in the virtue of simplicity, by engaging less in the consumer culture that drives us to ill health, and destroy the environment.
For example, we conducted research with community-supported agriculture participants. These are people who sign up with local farms to receive weekly shipments of fruits and vegetables rather than getting them from the grocery store or a big box store. These participants told us they were motivated by multiple synergistic values including health, concern for the environment, and connection to community. As a result, they tried harder to use the healthy foods that they got, and they worked harder to avoid wasting those foods in a way that was different than foods they might get from the grocery store.
Our work into the future will build upon these ideas to create multiple behavior change methodologies. We’ll be developing interventions employing what we call values-based behavioral systems that limit screen time—especially at night, increase active transportation—for example bicycling for errands, eating simpler and healthier foods, and managing a budget based on values, to see how we can move people to make lots of change, all at once, for the benefit of themselves and the planet.
So, as you leave here today, ask yourself this: which pill did you take? Will you walk out those doors and see the world as you always have? Or will you see a world potentially far out of sync with your own values, your own health? And if you do, how bold could you be changing how you live in that world? Thank you.