Embedded Health: Designing Future Health Interventions Around Our Weaknesses

Once we understand the points at which the human brain makes bad decisions that affect our health, we can begin to find ways to influence us to not make those decisions at all. It’s a lot cheaper than a visit to the ER.

Embedded Health: Designing Future Health Interventions Around Our Weaknesses
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Samsung recently got some decent press coverage for a new prototype smartphone that uses all sorts of subtle cues–things like how fast a user types, how often that user makes typos–to gauge the in-the-moment mental state of its user, so that, at some point in the future, if you’re angry, for example, your phone might not let you send a text message to your boss. It’s an example of an emerging class of technologies that aim to measure subtle shifts in our moment-to-moment states, and then adjust to them behind our backs.


The idea behind these sorts of technologies is pretty simple: We’re not always in control of our impulses, and we need help, including technological help, to do what we think is a good idea. But while these technologies aim to save us from ourselves when we’re angry or stressed or somehow incapable at a particular moment, they’re indicative of a broader point.

It isn’t just when we’re stressed or emotional that we need help navigating the wodrld; all sorts of little cues in our daily environments shape what we do with our lives. And in that sense, one of the big forms of innovation in the next decade won’t just be to slow us down when our emotions are spiraling out of control, but will be to use everything from emotion-sensing technologies to simple design to help us make better choices. This understanding will drive new concepts and designs in a variety of industries, and will be particularly important to driving new strategies to improve health.

At Institute for the Future, we’ve described this kind of intervention as embedded health. In contrast to health initiatives of the last decade–such as Health Savings Accounts and high-deductible health plans–that sought to address health challenges by attempting to educate consumers and encourage them to make better choices, many of the most successful interventions to improve health and well-being in the future will involve understanding our conscious and subconscious weaknesses and using these understandings to make it easier to be healthier.

Some of my favorite examples of subconscious influence come from looking at how context affects food. Brian Wasnick, a professor at Cornell and one of the leading researchers in the psychology of eating, has found links between things like lighting and plate size and how much we consume. (We eat more from larger plates, for instance.) In response, his lab has initiated something it calls the Small Plate Movement, aimed not at trying to encourage people to diet through sheer willpower, but at helping people lose weight by using the subtle cues they receive from plate size to change behaviors.

Of course, these kinds of interventions extend well beyond food and, in many instances, will rely on the kinds of smart analytics Samsung is developing. They even have the potential to create some strange scenarios; for example, a recent, small study found links between heavy smartphone use and stress, suggesting that a potential embedded health intervention would involve a phone that refuses to let you use it if you’re typing too erratically. Other applications are more straightforward: VW uses driver behavior to identify that a driver is falling asleep and warns that driver, in the moment, to pull over and rest.

Look for these kinds of innovations to proliferate. As anyone who has ever tried to lose weight, eat healthier, or floss every day knows, it’s hard to do healthier things day after day after day. One of the big opportunities in the next decade will involve finding hidden ways to make being healthier easier.

About the author

Bradley Kreit joined the Institute for the Future in the Health Horizons program in 2009. His research at IFTF builds on his background in anthropology and history by exploring how everyday challenges, decisions and contexts shape long-term futures--both in individual lives and at larger scales.