ASU KEDtalk: Change everything, all at once

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By revealing what is hidden in plain sight, Chris Wharton illuminates a path to health, wealth, happiness and sustainability.

Feb. 14, 2018

Video transcript

Thank you. Hi everyone, my name is Chris Wharton, I’m an associate professor of nutrition here at Arizona State University. I’m also the interim-Director of the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion.  

So, let me start off by providing a brief description of an otherwise non-descript day in the life of an average American. This person gets up in the morning, quickly gets ready, then hops in the car for her 20 or so minute commute to the office. She stops by Starbucks, gets to the office, then sits down at her desk to work at her computer. Around midday, she’s hungry so she heads out for lunch at a nearby café, comes back to finish up her work. After a pretty long day, she’s ready to head home. But you know she's tired, so she grabs some dinner on the way home, then gets back, and relaxes in front of the TV before heading off to bed.  

None of that sounds out of the ordinary or concerning. But, I contend, it's completely shocking. You see, we live in the Matrix. If you remember that movie, a character, Morpheus, who offers to another character, Neo, a blue pill or a red pill. Take the blue pill, and go back to everyday life.

Take the red pill, and see the world for what it actually is. I'm offering you the red pill.  

Here is what the red pill would show you:  

Americans spend more time in their cars than they do outside, watch 35 hours of television, a week, spend more money on food away from the home than they do on groceries.  

Americans waste 1/3 of the food produced in the US, and that wasted food represents $640 of lost value at the household level, and the 3rd largest source of manmade methane emissions, at the national level.  

The majority of Americans are also indebted, have less than $1000 of retirement savings, and if faced with a $500 emergency, would have to take a loan or sell something to manage the cost.  
In other words, we live in a world of wild, damaging, unsustainable excess. We are surrounded by unhealthy food options. We live in places built for cars, not for walking or biking. We're buried in screens 24-7. We face calls to buy stuff endlessly. And we live in a consumer culture that is dependent on the notion of disposal.  

But here's the thing: these excesses are so fully normalized, they so fully meet our expectations of how everyday life ought to look, that we no longer see them as excessive at all. They simply hide in plain sight.  

As a result, we eat poorly, we move too little, we spend too much , and damage the environment along the way, all as our default behaviors.  

So what's been the response to this unfortunate situation? Well, when it comes to almost any behavior change, specialists often suggest this baby-steps approach. Doing one little thing at a time and building up slowly but surely from there. And that's probably because that's how we do our research. We do this reductionist approach to behavior like we would any other experimental research.  

The problem, however, is that if we live in a world of excess, then changing one small thing at a time will simply do nothing for many. Why? Because the whole of the environment around us and the rest of our lifestyles are still built to support the behavior we used to engage in, not the new one we're trying to achieve.  

So, what's the solution?  

Well, if excess is the problem, simplicity is the solution. And if excess is pervasive, then changing small things one at a time won't cut it. In fact, I contend a possible route of greater success is to change everything, all at once.  

That sounds counter-intuitive, and hard. But recent research has shown we're far more adaptable to change, even dramatic change, than we give ourselves credit for. And it's possible that making multiple changes in key behaviors, including screen time, transportation, eating, moving, and spending, could synergistically work together not only to help changes persist, but to have simultaneous positive impacts in multiple areas of life, including health, wealth or financial security, happiness, and sustainability.  

So, my lab at ASU is now investigating this approach to lifestyle-wide behavior change, and we're just beginning to find some interesting results. The key is values-based behavior. Values like good health, living sustainably and connecting to community, these are all important to not just one behavior, but many at once. It turns out when people choose behaviors based on their values - and not the excessive norms that are so common - behavior changes become more important, more impactful, and possibly, more persistent. And often these values are based in the virtue of simplicity by engaging less in the consumer culture that drives us to ill-health and destroys the environment.  

For example, we conducted research with community supported agriculture participants, these are people who sign up with local farms to receive weekly shipments of fruits and vegetables rather than getting them from the grocery store or a big-box store. These participants told us they were motivated by multiple synergistic values, including health, concern for the environment, and connection to community. As a result, they tried harder to use the healthy foods that they got, and they worked harder to avoid wasting those foods in a way that was different than foods they might get from the grocery store.  

Our work into the future will build upon these ideas to create multiple behavior change methodologies. We'll be developing interventions employing values-based behavioral systems that limit screen time (especially at night), increase active transportation (for example, bicycling for run errands), eating simpler and healthier foods, and managing a budget based on values, to see how we can move people to make lots of change, all at once, for the benefit of themselves and the planet.  

So, as you leave here today, ask yourself: which pill did you take? Will you walk out those doors, and see the world as you always have? Or will you see a world potentially far out of sync with your own values, your own health? And if you do, how bold could you be changing how you live in that world?


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