5:2 – habit reinforcement & the reframing of rationing?

Having looked at research into habits recently, the question arises are there any effective short-cuts to pro-social habits. The one that seems to be growing due to its simplicity is living a 5:2 life – the concept of intermittent fasting or deferred gratification in various areas of life.  This has been the subject of a series of articles in the Guardian and a follow-up book by Emma Cook. In the first publication Oliver Burkeman sets out how the current  approach arose: “Fast Diet, also known as the 5:2 Diet, the eating plan first detailed in a BBC2 documentary last summer and then in a bestselling book, by the journalists Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer….. it entails eating very small amounts of food (600 calories for men, 500 for women) on two non-consecutive days of the week, and consuming whatever you like on the other five”.

This approach has now been applied in those aforementioned publications to cover a much wider group of human activity:

  • Diet
  • Drink
  • Fitness
  • Productivity
  • Finance, spending and saving
  • TV and screen gadget use
  • Relationships
  • Worry
  • Environment

This makes it very interesting as a simple and consistent concept, a bit like 80/20 pareto principles, that can be applied more widely. This is the sort of approach that the Behavioural Insights Team EAST methodology encourages. As something that has only been around as a well-known concept for 2 years, there is not yet enough research on its effectiveness. However bearing in mind what we already know about habits, a principle that can help to create easy to establish long-term new habits is to be welcomed. What does look interesting is how something like the concept of 5:2 can be framed effectively in communications terms to reach out across often clashing values.  For example:

  • Safety and security values – it is a simple ‘rule’ and not about complicated or new-fangled activity  – it can even be called a ‘fast’ or ‘rationing’ to make it sound more traditional to some
  • Self-esteem values – it can be done as part of a group so social proof and social norms apply and there can be an elements of competition built into it too
  • Self-actualising values – it can be promoted as a broadly ethical choice in reducing waste without having to give up everything

A crucial point that advocates of 5:2 make is that all the its areas are potentially complementary and synergistic so that with the best 5:2 activities (eg taking up cycling) it’s impact can be assessed across a range of benefits (Emma Cook in her book calls this the ‘linked benefits’of 5:2):

  1. Money saving
  2. Efficient and productive
  3. Health and fitness benefits
  4. Environmental benefits
  5. Well-being benefits

From a values perspective one could see 1. being motivational to those with safety & security and self-esteem values; 2. and 3. motivational for those with self-esteem values; and 4. and 5. motivating most to those with self-actualising values. Indeed it is possible to see it in future used by some politicians to reframe the concept of ‘modern rationing’ as part of a “5:2 Economy” in a lower growth society as an alternative to the existing austerity narrative. The usual narrative is one of ‘living within ones means’ and talks of debt in terms of household spend such as mortgages without recognising the difference between the relative short-term of an individual household and the long-term of a state. A 5:2 economy approach could thus respond to that at the level of the household narrative. This could unite those with safety and security values who might accept some ‘fairly constructed  forms of rationing’ with those who had self-actualising values who would accept the concept too but for ethical or environmental reasons. In doing that it would need to be recognised that those with self-esteem values would be much less initially amenable to this. However they are also more likely to then later accept any social norms that emerge.

From the above assessment, 5:2 approaches could be expanded into more collective and community based public health and public policy areas such as:

  • Co-production – expanding the opening times of some public services with support from volunteers without cutting back or threatening the livelihoods of staff
  • Corporate Social Responsibility – companies could seek to set out a CSR 5:2 commitment in some areas they work in
  • Community group activity – groups could develop approaches that are from time to time different to what they normally do, thus expanding local community networks and reciprocation between groups to increase community resilience. For example those who focus a lot on one specific community campaign might want to build time to work on another to more effectively learn from that new experience
  • Saving and Giving. The existing 5:2 ideas already flagged up above could be looked at as an area where public information campaigns encourage saving and giving for certain income streams using 5:2 to establish a social norm

I’m sure there could be other areas that could be thought up in the coming year to add to this approach to creating further community level pro-social habits.

5:2 life‘ could be much more effective than the ill-fated Big-Society as it could encourage community involvement without it implying it being a cuts agenda or leading to volunteer burn-out as it makes change manageable and personal commitment time-limited. That is always a good way to start both a new collective and a new individual habit.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development officer at The Campaign Company. You can read more about our behaviour change work here and our work into values here.