Panel: What works to change health habits

UCLA Health article

Down with doughnuts and other unhealthy habits

 From the left, UCLA health economist Frederick
 Zimmerman, University of Minnesota social
 psychologist Traci Mann and Los Angeles County
 public health director and UCLA professor Dr.
 Jonathan Fielding sat on a panel moderated by
 David H. Freedman, contributing editor at "The 

As much as social scientists have learned about what drives people's decision-making, there is still no silver bullet for changing people's behavior - especially when it comes to making better health choices.

Yet at a panel co-presented Tuesday night by UCLA and Zocalo at MOCA Grand Avenue before a capacity audience, public health scholars and policymakers agreed that it is possible to get people to choose strategies to be healthier if you give them time and engage them on several fronts, including enforcement by law.

"Policy is not a dirty word," said Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Dr. Jonathan Fielding, who is also a distinguished UCLA professor of health services and pediatrics. For 20 years, he said, health officials had tried to convince people to wear seatbelts through public service announcements. But nothing worked. Once wearing seatbelts became law, however, behaviors changed and lives were saved.

"Public health works by successive redefinition of the unacceptable," said Fielding, a philanthropist for whom UCLA's public health school was renamed.

The downside, however, is that we often talk about the government interfering with our personal freedom and responsibility. Those terms need to be reframed, said UCLA health economist Frederick J. Zimmerman. "What does freedom mean, what does power mean, what does personal responsibility mean?"

It took a law requiring car seatbelts to change people's behavior and save lives, said Dr. Fielding.

Zimmerman said the best campaigns, like California's hard-hitting anti-smoking ads, tie into people's sense of autonomy: "Send a clear signal that you are being manipulated when you see a food ad."

Zimmerman and Fielding appeared on the panel together with University of Minnesota social psychologist Trace Mann. It was moderated by David H. Freedman, contributing editor at "The Atlantic."
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