In an excerpt from his book, Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, talks about a simple change that Google made that resulted in a major cut in calories consumed by its employees. Specifically, Google implemented a cost effective change that resulted in 3 million less calories being consumed.

In typical Google fashion, Bock and his colleagues “decided to test three types of intervention: providing information so that people could make better food choices, limiting options to healthy choices, and nudging. Of the three, nudges were the most effective. Nudging involves subtly changing the structure of the environment without limiting choice.”

The concept of nudging was sparked by an article by David Laibson, a professor of economics at Harvard University. In his paper “A Cue-Theory of Consumption,” he demonstrated that cues in our environment contribute to consumption. People eat because they’re hungry, but they also eat because it’s lunchtime or because other people are eating. What if Google removed some of the cues that caused its Googlers to eat? And…nudging was born.

At one office location, Google “measured the consumption of microkitchen snacks for two weeks to generate a baseline, and then put all the candy in opaque containers. Googlers, being normal people, prefer candy to fruit, but what would happen when [Google] made the candy just a little less visible and harder to get to?” The results from a simple structural change like opaque containers were far beyond expectations. The proportion of total calories consumed from candy decreased by 30% and the proportion of fat consumed dropped by 40%. Googlers opted for the more visible granola bars, chips, and fruit vs. the “hidden” candy.

The success of the test prompted Google to expand the program to a larger office location – New York City. Healthy snacks like dried fruit and nuts were put in glass containers, and sweets were hidden in colored containers. “After seven weeks, Googlers in New York City had eaten 3.1 million fewer calories – enough to avoid gaining a cumulative 885 pounds.”

Google expanded its study even further by offering smaller plates in their kitchen and informing Googlers that research shows that eating off of smaller plates results in fewer calories consumed. The result was a 5% reduction in total consumption and 18% reduction in food waste. Not bad for the cost of a few extra plates!

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