How to Use Numbers for Your Health

Humans aren’t very good with numbers. We need computers to do most of our calculations. That means it is helpful to communicate numbers in ways that actually work for people. Sometimes by not even mentioning numbers at all.

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– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

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I like to have an oatmeal bar every once in a while. I have two favorites: The crunchy honey and the protein coconut. Since they are the same brand and look kind of similar, I considered them pretty equal in terms of health. But when the new display in my supermarket showed that the crunchy honey is ‘high in sugar‘ and the protein coconut ‘middle in sugar‘, it had an immediate impact on my behavior. Now I only go for the protein coconut bar, because it contains less sugar than the other oatmeal bar and tastes equally good. Although the information on the display was probably already on the package in grams of sugar, the display differentiates in a meaningful way and is easy to understand.

My supermarket knows that I don’t understand numbers very well and mostly don’t even make an effort. And it is not just supermarkets who know this. The Dutch National Lottery showcased it when they set up a new prize scheme. Instead of the usual million Euro jackpot, the main prize is €10.000 per month for the next 30 years. They call it ‘dream salary draw’. The €10.000 is easy for people to compare with their current salary. While the million Euro jackpot doesn’t compare to anything for most us.

Humans and numbers

Humans unfortunately just aren’t very good with numbers. Psychologist George Miller observed that people can memorize approximately only seven items when given a list of items (e.g., digits or letters). The longest list of items that a person can repeat back in the correct order on 50% of trials immediately after presentation turned out the be between 5 and 9. Therefore Miller titled his paper ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two‘ which is now often referred to as Miller’s law. The good news is that there are ways to counter this flaw and improve health and wellbeing.

Health and numbers

Health seems to be a numbers game in some way. Just make sure you burn more calories than you take in and you don’t get overweight. But since humans aren’t the number crunchers we would like to be, we have to use alternatives to help us.


During the outbreak of the Corona virus, the color codes of destinations made the news numerous times. The Dutch government and others around the world used these color codes to inform people on the overall safety issues in other countries. These issues include violence, health risks and political unrest among them. In an easy to understand manner, everyone in The Netherlands can check the color code of their destination on the website of the Dutch Foreign Ministry.

There are four colors used by the Dutch Foreign Ministry for overall safety. Green is the safest color. A destination with a green color code is considered safe to visit. The second color is yellow. Still considered safe enough to visit, although it has some additional risk. With some preparation and caution, the yellow destination is still considered safe. The third color used is orange. A destination with this color is not somewhere you want to visit unless it is absolutely necessary. The most unsafe color is red. Just don’t visit, no matter what. The color codes used by the Dutch government is a form of relative ranking. It makes it possible to compare the safety of destinations in a fast and easy manner. Most of us just don’t have the time or the energy to sort through all the information that is available to make an informed decision. Imagine having to go through thick reports on safety, health and environmental issues for every holiday destination you are considering. That would at least kill the anticipatory pleasure, if not invoke the cancellation of the whole idea of going on holiday.

2.Translating numbers to meaningful information.

For people to better understand numbers, it helps to translate numbers to something more familiar. In their book Making Numbers Count, Chip Heath and Karla Starr give some very nice examples of what they call “number makeovers”. Here are two possible ways to communicate the number of calories of a single M&M.

  • A single M&M contains 4 calories.
  • In order to burn off the calories in a single M&M, you would have to walk 2 flights of stairs.

Although I know that 4 is less than 5 and more than 3, the number of calories for a single M&M is hard for me to grapple with. Is 4 calories a lot or isn’t it? But when translated to a familiar task I do every day, I have no problems comprehending the number of calories. Two flights of stairs for just one M&M? I better take it easy the next time I buy a bag of M&M.

3.Not using numbers at all

With humans not being very good with numbers, the best way to communicate numbers may be not using them at all. A now famous example is the way that the number of female CEOs is communicated. In the Netherlands, the number of female CEOs in the top 100 listed Dutch companies is low. But instead of communicating the meager 5%, the campaign for awareness doesn’t communicates any numbers at all. The campaign just highlights the fact that there are more CEOs named Peter than there are female CEOs in the top 100 listed Dutch companies. Although Peter is a common name in The Netherlands, it obviously shouldn’t top the number of female CEOs. It therefore sends out a powerful message without using numbers at all.

Not using numbers is also being used in health research. The Telegraph published an article in 2016 in which researchers wanted to communicate their finding that British children are among the most housebound in the world. They didn’t just mention the low numbers of hours spend outside, but also left the numbers completely out when stating that children spend less time outside than prison inmates. I’m convinced the latter resonated harder with parents and other relatives than the sheer numbers did. It sure did with me.

Using numbers to influence your own health and wellbeing

The examples mentioned previously are mostly efforts by companies, researchers and governments trying to influence our behavior. How we pick our groceries, if we decide to play the lottery and how we feel about equality in society. Thankfully we can also use these same insights to influence our own behavior when it comes to our health and wellbeing.

If you rank beverages on an important item like sugar, it makes its easier to choose from the available options without much effort or complicating the decision. Translating calories into everyday physical activities ourselves is also helpful to make better choices. Either it be flights of stairs or something else you do regularly. Not using any numbers at all could possibly be the ultimate influencer. Because it is probably also the toughest to come up with, I would encourage you to share your ideas and examples with others.


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Sander Palm (1980) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral economist. He uses insights from the behavioral sciences to explain why people often act against their own interests. As a behavioral expert, he explores how you can nudge your behavior for a healthy lifestyle. He has a Master of Science in Marketing (VU University Amsterdam).

When you have been inspired to start and maintain your Golden Behaviors, reach out to me.


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