THE BLOG
01/24/2014 07:55 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

Are Health Scientists Healthy?

Inside a swanky Toronto conference room, some of the top behavioral and health scientists passionately discuss how to help people make more rational and healthful decisions. Outside the room, the Sheraton Centre event staff set up a snack table with coffee and gigantic, delicious cookies.

The session ends, and the scientists start to exit. I am standing at the doorway, chatting with a colleague. My friend whispers to me, "Will these scientists who are so interested in promoting health eat the cookies?" The answer is a resounding "Yes!" Every cookie is gone within minutes. Even the raisin ones are now just crumbs.

What conclusions should we draw from this scene? Are some of our best behavioral scientists just hypocrites? Are health scientists even healthy? These scientists should arguably be the most motivated to make healthful and rational choices, because they know the consequences of their actions.

Yet scientists still end up reaching for the cookies that they vowed not to eat. Scientists like me stay up late on Tumblr and then check Tumblr again at work, even though it leads us to be too "depleted" and "cognitively overloaded" to function properly.

Behavioral scientists don't just study irrationality; we live with it. Despite our own efforts to live rational lives and all the effort we spend designing environments that help people behave more rationally, we scientists find ourselves choosing irrationally.

Because of these failings, we become ever more passionate about our research. We've learned that knowing what is healthful or rational is not enough. We need more than just lessons and education about health, finances, and all major domains of our lives. Instead, we need to develop technologies that aid us in self-control, such as locks with built-in timers on the cookie cabinet, automatic enrollment into retirement savings, restaurants that explicitly ask if you want to have a half-portion of fries instead of the "supersize" portion, and general public environmental designs that enable better decisions.

Indeed, there are some super-self-controlled people in existence, but most of us tend to fall short. Most of us cannot will ourselves to always do the right thing and find a perfect balance between vice and virtue.

At the Duke University Center for Advanced Hindsight, the social science center where I conduct research, we make efforts to create a healthful and productive environment that can protect us from ourselves. We try to keep the cupboards full of easily accessible health foods to protect us from our junk food temptations. We make public social pacts to protect us from our lazy temptations. We make the center fun and even have a room called the Thinking & Dreaming Room, dedicated to calm thoughts and relaxing naps, to keep us protected from inefficient overworking (a problem that Ph.D. students can sometimes fall into).

Our center and others have developed strategies that people, businesses, and governments can use to help people reach their goals and behave more rationally -- for instance, self-imposed binding deadlines, purchasing food items in a non-hungry state, or even keeping an audio copy of The Hunger Games on a personal gym iPod to "tempt" us to work out.

Today, there are way too many cookies outside conference rooms. We must reduce or eliminate these cookies from our environments. It's difficult for one person to simply fight temptation and succeed all by themselves. It is possible, but in reality it is highly improbable. Rather than act as individuals and fight with our current environments, we must work to create environments that help us be great individuals together.