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5 - Healthy habits: some thoughts on the role of public policy in healthful eating and exercise under limited rationality

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2014

Matthew Rabin
University of California, Berkeley
Adam Oliver
London School of Economics and Political Science
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‘Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.’

– Mark Twain

‘The diminutive chain of habit is scarcely heavy enough to be felt till it is too strong to be broken.’

– simplification of Samuel Johnson quote used in nineteenth-century temperance literature

‘The child is the Father of the Man.’

– William Wordsworth

‘The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.’

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

‘Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.’

– Confucius

‘My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.’

– Errol Flynn


In this chapter, I explore some possible policy implications concerning habitual activities relating to health – such as eating and exercise – that have (for good reason) become the subject of social and policy debate. I do so from the perspective of economic theory, empirical evidence and with a focus on the implications of some recent research in behavioural economics.

I emphasize several themes. First, I outline a simple economic perspective on habitual behaviour. Although it also accords with common sense, reasonable psychology and empirical evidence, there is some tendency by social scientists and policy-makers to neglect this perspective.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2013

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