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Promoting Good Choices – A Per Capita policy seminar, 13 May 2009

On 13 May Per Capita hosted a half-day seminar jointly with Adpartners in Sydney. The event was the first in a series on “politics and the brain,” tackling the question: “how do people really make decisions?” Are we all rational economic calculators, measuring all the costs and benefits and deciding which option is most in our self-interest?

The story is not so simple. People aren’t perfectly rational. When we make decisions, we are influenced not only by price, but also by our habits, non-monetary incentives and community expectations.

If this wasn’t true, companies wouldn’t play music in their shops, pay models for their ads, and your friends’ advice wouldn’t affect you.

Some choices are made easy by the surrounding context, or by society. In other cases, the context undermines good choices. Per Capita put the question to the audience: how can our physical and social environments encourage good choices?

Instead of building a society in which the easiest option is to do no exercise, where the cheapest, most available food is junk food, what would society look like if it was built to make good choices easy?

Rob Donovan, Professor of Behavioural Research at Curtin University, opened the session by telling the group that government advertisements should not be relied on to promote good choices. Instead, community leaders and policymakers should think about a broader question: “how can healthy and financially sustainable choices be made attractive, available, and affordable?”

Making good things attractive: like when your mum used to put fruit out on the kitchen table. Or when your parents offered to kick the footy in the park with you.

Choice architecture offers a range of tools to shape decision-making environments to make good choices attractive – to promote good outcomes, while maintaining the freedom to choose.

Matt Perry, principal of the agency Republic of Everyone, presented a case study of a campaign using new ‘social media’ to engage people and influence choices without coercion. Per Capita recalls the “Life. Be in it” campaign of the 1970s (which is still going – though with a very dated website).

What are ‘good choices’? They are based on a scientific view of human nature functioning at its best, argued Dr. Suzy Green of the University of Sydney, founder of the Positive Psychology Institute. Positive psychology is about more than happiness, she told the group – it’s the science of optimal functioning. It’s a psychology of the human virtues, and which environments “cultivate what is best within ourselves.”

What would an Australia look like which “cultivated what is best within us”?

Over the next two months Per Capita will be releasing two reports, on predictable irrationality, and on promoting good choices, with a focus on applications and implementation in the Australian context.