The problem with changing behaviour is that just telling people to behave more healthily, reduce debts, recycle more or invest in a pension doesn’t work, even when it’s in their best interests.

Take Jack – he has type 2 diabetes. Recently it’s become harder to control with pills alone, and he now injects himself with insulin once a day. Jack has always had a sweet tooth and, even now, regularly tucks into the ice cream kept in the freezer for his grandchildren’s visits. Jack isn’t stupid or reckless, and when his blood sugar count is high, he is frightened. So why can Jack and so many other patients like him not take the behavioural steps that would protect their health and increase their life expectancy?

The ultimate explanation for Jack’s behaviour is that humans love calorie-rich food: a biological ‘hangover’ from a time when food was scarce, and a sweet tooth was a useful adaptive trait. This answers why Jack craves the ice cream – but why does Jack choose to eat the ice cream at the cost of worsening his diabetes? The answer may lie in behavioural science.


Behavioural science has at its heart cognitive and social psychology, and it helps to explain many of the foibles of human nature. One essential lesson that behavioural science has for us is that people frequently choose short term satisfaction over long term benefit. It’s an intuitive but dangerously neglected human truth. It explains procrastination, it explains ‘the diet starts tomorrow’, and it explains why Jack chooses to eat ice cream despite knowing that it may damage his health long-term.

Of course that is a simplification. The phenomenon itself is called ‘temporal discounting’ and it describes how people are biased towards choosing the option which gives them the smaller reward now over the larger reward later. Given the choice, most of us would choose £100 today over £110 next month – the further in time the reward is, the lesser its incentive. For Jack, the abstract notion of a healthier ‘future Jack’ is hardly an incentive at all.

The solution to temporal discounting is not to berate people who eat unhealthy food, unwind on the sofa, or skip doses of their medications. Instead, the ‘correct’ behaviour must be a little source of instant gratification to rival that of chocolate or a lazy evening in front of the television. A winning healthy change should be camouflaged in our daily routine and should generate the same gratifying feeling as popping bubble wrap. For instance, Jack could be rewarded for healthy eating by gaining points for each ‘healthy’ meal he consumes via a smartphone app (even detracting points for unhealthy snacks).

This solution for incentivising healthy behaviours extends beyond healthy eating – it’s applicable wherever we are faced with a choice between safeguarding our future selves and taking the easy way out in the present. From our pharmaceutical research, we know that patients often don’t want to use their medicated skin creams. Using this method of behaviour change, we were able to come up with a suite of reward-based interventions which would reward patients in the moment for adhering to their creams. One such intervention was a cream formulation which generated a tingling sensation – the ‘little reward’ for using the medications.

Jack’s case study is a useful one to bear in mind for organisations trying to bring about behaviour change – from trying to encourage diabetic patients to eat healthily to trying to get people to do their tax returns or save more for their pensions. While we know that Jack isn’t stupid, he can sometimes make ‘bad’ decisions. When designing brands, products, communications or policies, we need to think about giving people more immediate rewards, shaping people’s behaviour in a way which benefits them, but without being prescriptive.