Why Choosing a Healthy Behavior Cannot Be a Rational Choice

Starting an healthy behavior contains three steps. Just figure out (1) what healthy behaviors are possible, (2) which of those possible healthy behaviors are most beneficial to you, and (3) simply start with this new healthy behavior. However, as you may suspect, this is not as easy as it seems. There are three reasons why choosing a healthy behavior cannot possibly be a rational choice.

Golden Behaviors

– Nudges for a Healthy Lifestyle –

Reading time: 6 minutes

In The Netherlands it is customary to serve two to three types of birthday cake to visitors. When I visit the birthday party of my friend Mark, he usually starts by summing up the options.

He may say “Niels, I have three types of birthday cake today. The first is apple crumble pie…”

At which point I interrupt and say “I will have that one,” because this is a completely satisfactory option for me.

Mark reacts with surprise (at least the first time this happened) as I have not even heard all the options. He knows that I cannot possibly make a considered choice. Mark then provides me with the other options, although this has never changed my choices as far as I can remember. My behavior is called satisficing. Most of us act as satisficers in many occasions.

We usually act as satisficers

We are seeking a satisfactory option rather than an optimal one, because of bounds to our rationality. Psychologist Herbert Simon would say we behave as satisficers most of the time. First, finding out about all possible options is impossible: it may prove to be an intractable problem. Second, figuring out which of those options is best for us may exceed our cognitive limitations. Third, we usually allow limited time to figure out alternative options.  

Not all problems are tractable.

Rationality is limited, because not all problems are tractable. A problem is called tractable if there is an efficient way to solve it, that is, the problem can be handled. But not all problems are tractable. For example, when buying a car, it may not be easy to know all options that you can choose from. This may be because brands introduce new models frequently and current models may be out of stock. If you have completed your list of possible brands and models and check this list tomorrow, then you may see that some options on your list are no longer available and new options have appeared.

Another example of an intractable problem is when you are looking for a new job. You may send out multiple application letters for jobs that you are more or less enthusiastic about. You get invited for job interviews at two companies. After the second round of interviews, you receive a job offer at company 1. Although you like this job, you prefer the job at company 2. However, you have not finished the second round of interviews there and thus you do not know whether you will receive a job offer. You have to decide on accepting or rejecting the job offer for company 1, before you have your second interview at company 2. There is no efficient way to solve this problem. If you accept the job at company 1, this maybe suboptimal, because you might get an offer at company 2 as well. On the other side, if you reject the job at company 1, this may also be suboptimal, because you might be left with no job at all.

We have cognitive limitations

Rationality is limited, because of the cognitive limitations. It may be hard to know your preferences, but even then, it may prove difficult to weigh your options in the overabundance of information. You may have experienced this when choosing a restaurant with your partner. You may like an Italian restaurant where the prices are also somewhat lower than other restaurant, whereas your partner may prefer the more exclusive tastes of a restaurant with a French kitchen on a beautiful lake-side location. It may prove very difficult to figure out what is the best choice considering how each of you value each of these characteristics.

And then we are only talking about the choice between two restaurants. In 2019 there were 348 restaurants in in my hometown Haarlem, The Netherlands, spread across the city (see Figure below). So, if I was completely rational, I would have to choose between 348 restaurants in Haarlem. If I could evaluate one restaurant (on relevant criteria) every 5 minutes, it would take me about a full workweek to choose the best restaurant. You should have seen the look on my wife’s face, when I proposed to take this approach for a romantic diner…

Haarlem has more than 300 restaurants

But why should I limit myself to restaurants in Haarlem only? I could include traveling distance as an evaluation criterium, and that would vastly increase my number of options. Because the number of restaurants is so abundant, I find it impossible to consider all restaurants.

Choosing the cheapest cookies is not as easy as it seems

Another example is a choice between cookies. I could choose between Real Enkhuizer Cookies Original for €1.68 or Real Enkhuizer Cookies Cinnamon for €1.58 (see Figure below). My experience of the taste is more or less the same: the difference in taste does not lead me to choose one over the other. So the initial choice, would be to go for the Cinnamon cookies. After all, they are cheaper. However, on closer inspection the Original cookies are cheaper per cookie. After all, the Original package contains 20 cookies (about €0.08 per cookie), whereas the Cinnamon package contains 15 cookies (about €0.11 per cookie). So both packages can be considered cheaper, depending on the way you look at it. If I am indifferent to the taste, how can I decide which package of cookies to choose? Choosing the cheapest cookies is not as easy as it seems.

Which container of cookies is the cheapest?

We allow limited time for making decisions

Rationality is limited, because time for making a decision is usually limited. As a simple example, when buying groceries in the supermarket, you usually spend limited time to choose between the options for jam. You could reconsider all jams that are displayed. After all, some may be on sale or a new brand or taste has been added to the assortment. However, even if you were willing to go through all these choices once, I’m sure you would be less willing to do this every time you visit the supermarket. If you also have to go through all the choices of butter, cornflakes, desert, bread, and all your other groceries, doing groceries would cost you most of your day.

Why Choosing a Healthy Behavior Cannot Be a Rational Choice

Starting an healthy behavior may seem easy, when you think about it. Just figure out (1) what healthy behaviors out of all possible healthy behaviors are possible, (2) which of those possible healthy behaviors are most beneficial to you, and then (3) simply replace this new healthy behavior instead of the old not-so-healthy behaviors.

For starting healthy behaviors we should probably act as satisficers as well. First, it is an intractable problem: there is no efficient way to solve it, because there are so many healthy behaviors to choose from. It is impossible for most – if not all – human beings to have a complete overview of all these activities. Second, considering alle healthy behaviors exceed our cognitive limitations: if it is impossible to compile a complete list of healthy behaviors, it would be even more challenging to evaluate all these behaviors. Third, we should allow limited time to determine a healthy behavior to engage in. I want to start my new healthy behavior this week, not in 10 years. So instead of choosing a behavior rationally, we should just choose a behavior that seems attractive and doable. We can always adjust our choices later. Finally, starting and maintaining a new healthy behavior is perhaps the most difficult part. That is what I discuss in my blog about using a tempting habit to start a healthy habit.

Why Choosing a Healthy Behavior Cannot Be a Rational Choice Click To Tweet

Niels Vink (1975) is author of Golden Behaviors and behavioral designer. 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 Master degrees in Social Psychology (Leiden University) and Industrial Design Engineering (Delft University of Technology) and holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior.

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

Source of top image: Bernadette Wurzinger via Shotstash.com


Golden Behaviors Blog

Leave a Reply