It seems at once the simplest and most complex of health problems: by eating healthily, not smoking, being more active and cutting down on alcohol, we can live longer, healthier lives. Why, then, do so many of us ignore this advice?
The remit of Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Un Something that, so far, many countries have tried to do, but with limited success.
The Unit brings together a team of experts from the University of Cambridge, two Medical Research Council units in Cambridge (Epidemiology and Human Nutrition Research), RAND Europe and the University of East Anglia. As well as researchers from the Clinical School, the Unit includes David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of Public Understanding of Risk at the Centre for Mathematical Sciences. The range of disciplines covered includes behavioural science, neuroscience, anthropology, economics and epidemiology.
This disciplinary mix is what marks out the new Unit, explained its Director and Honorary Professor of Behaviour and Health, Theresa Marteau. "It’s a range of disciplines, some of which have been addressing similar problems but from different perspectives, for example bringing in neuroscience as well as epidemiology and behavioural science to understand the behaviour that contributes to population health and ill-health."
Insights from behavioural and neuroscience into the basis of everyday behaviour will be particularly important. "We will focus on two key systems. The first is the reflective, goal-directed system driven by values and intentions. We want to lose weight, we intend to eat less. The second system is the more automatic system that is driven by immediate feelings and habits. These two systems operate sometimes synergistically as well as antagonistically in shaping our behaviour," she said.
So, despite intending to eat less, we find we have bought the chocolate bar at the checkout. "As neuroscience increasingly reveals how our behaviour is governed by unconscious processes, we understand better how advertisers and retailers shape our behaviour, unfortunately often to the detriment of our health. The trick is to see how we can capitalise on this understanding to develop more effective interventions that cue healthier behaviours."