Microlives and miles, not calories and cash: the power of thinking in 'vivid quantities'

ChipsandbeansAccording to research published this spring, people make healthier menu choices when calories are listed beside each item – but they make even better choices when they're told how far they'd have to walk to burn off the calories consumed. This makes sense: for most of us, a calorie is a nebulous, hard-to-visualise thing, while a listing such as "burger: 2.6 miles" brings things sharply into focus. Somebody, it occurs to me, ought to design an app along these lines, for eating out: it would ask me what kind of food I'd like, then direct me only to those restaurants sufficiently far away that I'd neutralise the effect of the meal by walking there. In the mood for salad? There's a place on the corner. Hungry for sausages, cheesy chips and a large slice of cake? Time to dig out the hiking boots.

Comparison-proofing: on mattresses and the secrets of happiness

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphptl Bo J3If, like me, you've recently purchased a mattress, you'll know it's an astoundingly tedious and soul-depleting process – rendered only slightly less awful by the fact that when you do finally collapse, exhausted by indecision, in the middle of the beds department, there are plenty of places to lie down. Long ago, maybe mattress-shopping was a simple choice between "firm" and "soft", but these days it's a thicket of dilemmas. Memory foam, wool, gel, fibre? Solid-slatted or sprung-slatted? Lumbar zoning? Perhaps a pillow-top? This complexity at first seems hard to explain. Sure, it's nice to have options, but why deliberately aggravate customers, delaying the moment of purchase with so many extra decisions? Aren't mattress-makers aware of one of the best-known truths of consumer psychology: that too much choice makes people miserable?

Use cash, save money (and annoy people)

Varwwwclientsclient1web2tmpphpgd BihsRecently, as part of a personal experiment in the psychology of money, I spent almost a month trying to make every purchase I could in hard cash. So before I go further, I should apologise if you were one of the people who found themselves stuck behind me in supermarket queues while I fished through my rucksack for the little beige envelopes in which I'd stashed that week's notes and coins. (More on these shortly.) Some time ago, in the US, Visa ran a series of ads based on the premise that people who don't pay with plastic infuriate other customers; the slogan was, "because money shouldn't slow you down". I can report that this fury is real. Even checkout staff didn't seem grateful to receive the exact change, counted out in scores of tiny coins, even though this procedure almost always took me less than 15 minutes.