The godfather of behavioural economics, Daniel Kahneman, has a phrase he’s fond of and uses often: “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats. They can do it, but they’d prefer not to.”
One way we express this preference is by getting other people to do our thinking for us. The simplest way to do this is to do what other people do.
Culture is a source of shared intelligence. Without it we would have to puzzle out countless things for ourselves. If this wasn’t impossible, it would be exhausting. We would be cats at sea.
The problems we’re keenest to outsource are those we face most immediately and existentially – food, shelter and protection. Societies develop their own food and health cultures as people make use of what’s around them to survive and hopefully thrive.
However, just because something works, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Cultures can and do share imperfect behaviours. The ease of doing the same as others makes change hard. Other people’s solutions remain easier than discovering our own.
The digital world is about to change this, and in ways few people and businesses fully understand. Culture dominates our solutions because following our culture is easier than knowing about ourselves.
We misunderstand our own health because the signals we receive are immediate but unclear – hunger, pain, boredom. We don’t know what we’re hungry for, what causes our pain, or how to replace boredom with useful mental activity.
The immediate solutions we choose lead to the epidemic of obesity and mental health problems we see spreading around the world. For the first time in history more people have their health threatened by obesity than by starvation.
One way to change this is to monitor ourselves more closely. There’s a small counterculture of people who have done this for years: the Quantified Self movement. Typically focusing on diet, mental health and exercise, and the impact on their bodies, they track weight, food, blood chemistry, body functions, mood, activity and a host of other things. The aim is to see themselves objectively and live better. Their lives and selves are beautifully captured in Travis Hodges’ photographic portrait project of members of the group.
It’s not a question of whether this culture will become mainstream, but when. Each of us carries a smartphone that can already quantify many activities. We’re a few short steps away from knowing ourselves as never before. Technologies will help us understand our hunger, moods and pains and this will change our relationships with the cultures of food and health forever. We will become independent of received wisdom and newly intertwined into a world of objective data.
Two things are holding this revolution back.
First, the technology is not perfected. It still demands too much effort. It needs to be effortless and automatic and the information it collects intuitive and easy to act on. Until then, collecting it will remain the preserve of those as motivated as the Quantified Self people.
Second, organisations need to change the way they see data. The chorus of cheerleaders for Big Data grows every day. Yet organisations continue to see data as a way for them to better understand their customers. This is short-sighted and old-fashioned thinking that belongs in the past. The future belongs to organisations who use data to help customers better understand themselves.
Then we will start to live in a new culture that will be healthier and happier.