Let Us Eat Cake – Healthy Behaviour Change

It’s 3pm. I’m feeling a little tired. I know I should stretch and go for a walk, but instead I reach for the chocolate in my drawer. It’s Friday night. The end of a busy and stressful week. You start with one glass of wine, but that becomes two or three, just to ‘take the edge off’ things. You haven’t had a chance to meditate all week and then an hour window opens up in your schedule. You end up mindlessly scrolling through Facebook instead of getting that time of focus, rest, and personal growth. We all know what is good for us. We also know what is not so good for us. But that knowledge doesn’t always help us in the moment of decision. Why?


Because human beings are fundamentally irrational. We are not driven to make decisions based entirely on knowledge and reason. Our decisions are largely governed by our emotions (and sometimes how hungry we are in the moment!). Being emotionally-driven brings many benefits to humanity and the world around us. Emotional decisions fuel spontaneity, creativity and innovation. Emotions foster passion. And to have passion is the delicious fruit of life itself, is it not? But what about the quandary of human behaviour as it relates to health and wellness? How can we help people to make better decisions for themselves, ultimately reducing the burden of morbidity and mortality – that is, improving the quality and length of people’s lives? Importantly, knowledge is power and can make a difference to how we live our lives.


There is something called ‘Present Bias’ which has a big influence on the decisions we make and anyone who works in wellbeing would do well knowing about it. “The present bias refers to the tendency of people to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering trade-offs between two future moments” (O’Donoghue & Rabin, 1999). Present bias is often why you gobble that chocolate cake, why you skip exercise for a sleep in, and why you scroll Facebook on your lunch break instead of sitting down to meditate. It’s a natural human tendency. Thankfully, as well as knowing why we make poor choices, there has also been great research into how to positively influence health behaviour. Let’s look at a few of those ways.

Positive influences on health behaviour

1. Rules/laws – in some cases, the most effective way to encourage healthy behaviour is through the creation of rules, or sometimes laws. A classic example is the introduction of seatbelt laws, implemented in Australia about 50 years ago. Anyone younger than 50 could mistakenly believe that wearing seatbelts was always mandatory – it’s just common sense. But it took legislation and a great deal of cultural change to make it happen.

There are many other examples where rules and laws are used to reduce morbidity and mortality among our populations. I’m sure you can think of a few. The current ‘sugar tax’ debate is a good example.


2. Psychology – another way to influence health behaviour is through psychology. In many cases, when behaviours are linked to a reward or a loss, we can see new patterns emerging. In the workplace, creating a reward system linked to a healthy walking activity (like 10,000 steps) is one way to do it, ensuring there are rewards for participation, results, and winners. rewards can be a free lunch, time off work, prizes, and more.

At home, setting up a rewards or ‘penalty system’ linked to a health goal can be beneficial. Interestingly, some research shows that penalties are more motivating than rewards. An example would be making a deal with your partner to hold onto a reward (chocolates?) for you and take away pieces of it every time you miss your goal. If you planned to go to the gym every day, your partner takes away a pieces of chocolate from your little reward stash if you miss a day. Be careful with what rewards you choose and what agreement you make with your partner!

Intrinsic rewards are usually more powerful than extrinsic, so involving the team/goal-setter in the process of setting up the rewards can make a big difference. The results can be surprising!


3. Financial – it is possible to tie health behaviours purely to financial gains/loss. Back to our roads safety example, most people pay pretty careful attention to their speed limits when they know there are cameras around. But why don’t they hide the cameras? Why do they show up on GPS?

Hint: They don’t want them to be secret! A little extra speed fine revenue is handy, I’m sure. But ultimately, cameras usually mean that people slow down before they get a fine. The idea of getting a fine is enough. Better to slow down and reduce risk, rather than have someone speeding and hope to catch them out later – it might be too late then.

Using financial incentives to modify health behaviour is effective – but it is also controversial. One concern is the idea that providing financial incentives for some health behaviours – like taking medicines – is effectively ‘gaming the system’, as well as taking advantage of certain population groups, so this is something to explore within an organisation. Perhaps it is best managed within hospitals and government legislation.


4. Social Engagement – we are, essentially, social creatures. We care about what others think of us and the way we behave. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the social model is a very effective way to influence behaviour. We model what we see others do, especially family, friends and colleagues, as well as celebrities. You know that saying, ‘you are the combination of the 5 people you spend the most time with’?

This cannot be more obvious than in the workplace. From what’s available in the environment, to the activities people undertake inside and outside the office, observing healthy behaviour can serve as catalyst for change in others.

So, who drives these practices in the workplace? There are a multitude of factors here. The choices by individuals do make an impact, and the external environment influences this.


But the biggest impact of all is made by the company and its culture. What policies do you have in place? How is the environment set up for health and wellness? Do the leadership team follow healthy practices and model them for staff? Is there are grassroots program for wellness?

There are many factors to consider, and these are just a few ways health behaviour can be influenced, in our homes, workplace, and the world around us. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Do you see any of these patterns ringing true for you, either at home or at work? 


Ruth Kent
Mental Health & Wellness Expert

Ruth Kent is a Ruth Kent is a sought after coach, consultant and facilitator in the workplace wellbeing space. Through her consultation and strategic development, she provides tailored programs and workshops in health and wellness for long-term behaviour change and support to both teams and leadership.  If you would like to read more about Ruth and her workshops on Essemy click this link.