Change the habits of a lifetime

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Professor Michèle Belot joined the EUI Economics Faculty in January 2017 from the University of Edinburgh, where she was a Professor 2012-2016. During this time she was also Director of BLUE, the university’s Behavioural Laboratory. Previously, she was a Lecturer at the University of Essex and a Research Fellow at Nuffield College Oxford. Her research is mainly empirical and in the area of behavioural and labour economics.

‘New Year, new you’. It might be a cliché, but we’ve all made those January 1st resolutions to do more exercise or eat more healthily. Approximately three-four weeks later (about now) we’ve also all discovered that it can be quite difficult to change the habits of a lifetime. When the winter nights are still cold and long, it’s all too easy to take comfort in the immediate gratification of sweet treats, warm blankets, and Netflix.

Professor Michele Belot

Michele Belot, Professor of Economics

Michèle Belot knows it can be hard to turn over a new leaf. As an applied economist, she’s made a career working on policy relevant interventions to improve people’s health. ‘The aim is to understand whether obesity, for example, is driven by people who make choices and are fine with the associated poor health (whilst enjoying the immediate gratification), or whether people would like to do something different but don’t manage to stick to the plan.’ The answer, I’m sure, will surprise few. ‘There is a lot of evidence that people want something different,’ Belot said. ‘So in behavioural economics this opened a lot of research on how to develop policy interventions that could help people overcome their habits.’

As part of an interdisciplinary EU-funded team, Belot used every means she could imagine to incentivise people to eat healthily. ‘We provided them with food delivered at home, for free, with the recipes,’ she told me. ‘We made it very easy for them.’ Yet even then, she discovered people still find it difficult to change. ‘You would expect that with such a large intervention you would see something quite substantial happening. But it doesn’t seem to be the case,’ she said.

The team decided to employ another strategy. ‘We thought if we told people their chances of having a heart attack, for example, it would trigger change,’ Belot told EUI Times. Public health campaigns tend to have a very general message, so explaining to exactly how someone’s bad habits affect their lives seemed to be a sensible tactic. But the experiment backfired. ‘For most people, we actually gave them good news!’ Belot revealed. ‘People are pessimistic about their chances of having a heart attack, so when we tell them the probability they are pleasantly surprised,’ Belot explained.

Despite the setbacks, Belot remains a firm advocate of education as a tool to improve people’s choices.  ‘Many behavioural economists have abandoned the idea, but I still believe in education,’ she said. ‘It’s not straightforward though. People need to be convinced that this is relevant to them and they really need to change their behaviour.’

Belot herself successfully changed from being a health-conscious skeptic of vegetarianism to a committed vegan. Initially, ethical concerns prompted a change in behaviour, but the habit only solidified when she noticed the health benefits. ‘Of course, I have been interested in nutrition for a long time,’ she said. ‘But I never quite understood vegetarianism until 3-4 years ago. I thought I was healthy but actually I feel a lot healthier now – I don’t feel tired, even though we have a five month old baby!’ she said. Yet Belot admits that being a behavioural economist might have helped her change her diet with ease.  ‘For me, as soon as I was aware of the ethical concerns and the health benefits, it was not at all difficult. But from a research point of view, what triggers change in people is very hard to understand. People may manage to change for a while, but in the longer term it is much harder.’

As well as diet, Belot is interested in mental health and wellbeing more generally. ‘All these things require you to stick to a program, and that is hard,’ she said. ‘You have the same problems as with diet. You need to be disciplined, and we are just not disciplined as human beings!’ Yet despite the complexity of changing habits, Belot is genuinely committed to the challenge. ‘Health matters to me because it is one of the most important things in people’s lives, so I am very passionate about it!’ she said.

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