For my first couple of weeks here at Northwestern, I had a major problem: late at night, I would get the munchies. I was accustomed to eating dinner earlier at home, so the easy access to granola bars and string cheese in my room was a godsend. However, determined to avoid gaining the freshman 15, I made a radical decision. I decided to trick my mind. I brushed my teeth right after dinner, and, out of the inconvenience of having to brush my teeth again, I could easily steer away from the Doritos and peanut M&Ms.
This is a part of what Sendhil Mullainathan addresses in a discussion featured on Ted Talks. We’ve read the published statistics on caloric intake, especially at night; we’ve been told by our doctors what to eat and what not to eat; the problem of nutrition has been solved– we now know what we should and should not do. And yet we crave food, especially starchy, high-caloric foods, when they are readily available.
Perhaps this developed out of a survival instinct we established long ago to build fat reserves when food was available. Regardless, the problem clearly exists. According to the CDC, more than 33% of U.S. citizens are obese. While we fully understand the biological mechanism of hunger, the complexity of the human mind and the role of human behavior in, for example, staving off cravings, remains largely unexplored.
Mullainathan terms this phenomenon the “last mile problem.” We’ve spent billions of dollars completing research and attempting to create new technologies to solve critical social and healthcare problems, but we simply can’t eliminate the problems. We simply can’t complete that last mile. Why? Mullainathan argues that when it comes to applying these technologies in the human population, human psychology is often disregarded. He uses the especially poignant example of diabetics who rely on a daily dose of insulin to maintain glucose levels. It is a well-established fact that diabetic patients in need of insulin should take insulin to avoid the complications of diabetes, such as limb loss and blindness. Furthermore, through programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, any patient in need of insulin now has access to it. Yet nearly 25% of diabetics who need insulin simply choose not to implement the treatment, perhaps due to the inconvenience of carrying needles or the pain of testing blood sugar and injecting the insulin. Therefore, a simple solution was recently proposed: an easy-to-carry insulin pen which reduces the inconvenience considerably. Incredibly, the simple device alone increased insulin usage 5-10% in patients.
According to Mullainathan, the future of health care and marketing does not necessarily rest on technological advancement but on the development of simple ideas, like brushing one’s teeth after a meal, which apply human psychology and human behavior. As a student struggling to gain control of myself through the mind- from managing time well to avoiding dining hall cookies - I can't agree more.