Thanks to the generous funding from the Libby Rouse Grant I received through the Council on Middle East Studies at the MacMillan Center, I spent several weeks this summer in Doha, Qatar. I had the opportunity to work with the Qatar Behavioral Insights Unit (QBIU) to address one of the society’s most pressing priorities—nutritional deficits. I have long been fascinated by the intersection between behavioral economics and public policy, so it was exciting to get to work with a government “nudge unit” up close.
Qatar has the highest per capita gross domestic product due to a set of rapid transformations that occurred over the course of recent decades. While the country has made tremendous and rapid progress along many social indicators, one challenge is obesity. Seventy percent of the population obese or overweight, according to the Qatar Biobank annual report for 2016. As a result, there is high policy interest in promoting better nutrition and healthier lifestyles among citizens and residents.
Recently, behavioral economists have found that because we make decisions using mental shortcuts, or heuristics, small changes in our surroundings can drastically alter our choices. Specifically, we can “nudge” people toward particular behaviors through changes that are easy and affordable but have an effect all the same. These nudges have been shown in other contexts to be effective in encouraging behavior that has delayed benefits, such as getting a vaccine, voting, or quitting smoking.
I worked with QBIU and Carrefour, a large international grocery store chain with locations in Qatar, to test behavioral interventions that might lead to better eating habits. I administered a short survey on eating habits that was intended to remind, or prime, people to buy fruits and vegetables. Getting to lead my own study and experience every step—designing interventions based on government priorities, communicating and securing a partnership with Carrefour, refining the study protocol, selecting and leading a group of interns in carrying out the intervention, and, finally, collecting and analyzing the data—has been an incredible experience. It has taught me a great deal about how to conduct research and take ownership of a project.
Outside of my work with QBIU, I had the opportunity to explore Doha—visiting the Museum of Islamic Art built by I.M. Pei, the recently-constructed National Museum of History, and shopping through historical souqs.
I am grateful for the support of the MacMillan Center and the Qatar Behavioral Insights Unit in making this project a reality, and hope that insights derived from the study can inform policy with a positive social impact.
Written by Deena Mousa, Yale College, Class of 2020.