Food & Nutrition

    Addiction & Risky Behaviors

AXA Awards


Exploring a New Role for Identity in Health Behaviors

The notion of identity, all the characteristics, that make us who we are, may have more impact on our food, health and economic behavior than anyone has given it credit for. Individual identity is something that economists have more recently started examining seriously, but, even then, they’ve typically considered it to be unchanging throughout life. Prof. Fabrice Etilé disagrees and here, at the crossroads of economics and psychology, he is exploring how different dimensions of identity influence our health-related behaviors. Social identity—characterized by our social interactions, job, community, etc.—may be involved in the nutritional transition occurring in emerging countries. The very individual traits of personal identity, like childhood memories or personal goals, might help us predict risky health behaviors. By revealing these connections, he may also identify ways to encourage healthier behaviors.
Developing countries, like China and Indonesia, are experiencing a transformation in their nutritional patterns described as a Westernization of their diet. The increase in consumption of refined sugar and fats is associated with a rise in diabetes and obesity. If these societies, are gradually moving towards Western food habits, favoring supermarkets and fast food over traditional options, this would indicate a change in their culture, indicating social interactions and social identity are at play. However, Prof. Etilé questions whether this is the only factor. It may be that China, for instance, is simply importing more food processing technologies from the West to produce traditional Chinese food differently.

Telling the difference would be essential for identifying the right target for health information campaigns. Should they aim at changing individuals’ behavior, advising them to avoid Western food, or should the target be the food industry and its production methods? Prof. Etilé will work out the answer by analyzing data for China and Indonesia obtained through nutritional, health and household budget surveys and scanner data tracking purchases over time. Of course, many factors can explain changing food habits, like prices and environmental impacts on the food supply. To isolate the possible role of an evolving food culture, he will make use of data on other phenomena, like internal migrations that bring people from different cultural backgrounds into the same economic and food environment.

Cultural forces and social identity may interact to change food habits; what if we could actively change dimensions of our personal identity to favor more healthful behavior? In contrast to economists’ treatment of the subject up until now, Prof. Etilé believes that our personal identity changes over time. This could explain why we make certain health-related decisions that won’t be in our best interest down the road, like young people taking up smoking and people in their 60s resisting the dependency insurance they’re bound to need in their 80s. The second goal of Prof. Etilé’s project is to help explain risky behaviors like these and explore how they might be predicted. Through economic and psychometric lab experiments with subjects in France, he aims to develop a measure of the connectedness between our present and future selves, helping to open “the black box of identity”. The dual challenge, he says, will be to measure identity and to succeed in making people think about changing theirs.

Both angles of Prof. Etilé’s research could lead to better strategies for the prevention of risky health behaviors. This could happen, in the first case, thanks to understanding the interaction of technology, food cultures, social identity and health; and in the other, through mapping out the connections between one’s personal identity today and tomorrow. As he says, “This could lead to designing policy interventions that make people think about who they would like to be in the future.”

Scientific title : Identity and Health Behaviours

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Paris School of Economics





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