Understanding Motivation: Motivation is a Wicked Problem

A wicked problem is a term used in policy making that describes a problem which is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.
This is the third in a series of four blogs that explores the concepts behind Bags of Taste that contribute to its success

The problem of improving diets for those in poverty is a “wicked” problem, and here’s why.

Two thirds of the UK’s adult population is overweight or obese, so even though we all want to eat healthier, and we ‘know’ what healthy food is, and that it’s good for you, it doesn’t seem to be enough to motivate us to change our habits. So how does motivation work, if ‘knowing’ about something isn’t enough?

Motivation is a complex beast. To better understand motivation and how to help people find it, I came up with this formula:

Enthusiasm – Barriers = Motivation

We all know people who seem to be full of enthusiasm, but somehow never get anything achieved.  What is going on?
Imagine your enthusiasm filling a balloon, like air.  Barriers, that prevent you from doing what you want to do, let the enthusiasm out of your balloon. So the motivation is what you have left, after barriers have let out your enthusiasm. If there are too many barriers, then there will be no enthusiasm left, your motivation will be entirely flat, and you will not achieve your goal.

Not all barriers are visible or obvious – we discussed this in the previous blog in the series. But they can drain your enthusiasm, nevertheless.

three balloons, one with a pin going towards it and one with repairs

Imagine your motivation was a balloon, how big would it be if you take the air out, or put more air in?

The enthusiasm part

We learned in the first blog in this series that the primary consideration in food choices, the driver of “enthusiasm”, if you will, (for all people, not just those in poverty) is taste.  The more delicious something is, the more you want to eat it.

Second is cost, and third is convenience.  We need to ensure that what we offer is cheap, and easy.

The fourth thing on that list is familiar tastes.  This is important, as your food preferences are often part of your cultural identity, and not easy to change.

Herein lies the “wickedness” of the problem. If it’s really easy, will it be tasty enough?  If we are catering to takeaway preferences like Indian, or Chinese, will it be easy or as tasty?  How does cost fit into all of this?  Will cheap products taste bad?  And what about health? Healthy food often costs more, or so people believe.   How does this balance with cost then? These competing imperatives make finding a good solution very difficult.

But enthusiasm, as every large food company knows, is also affected by psychology: marketing, behavioural science and establishing social norms are all things that can also be used to increase enthusiasm.

In the next blog, we discuss the role barriers play and how we solve this motivational equation.

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