We read almost every week of new research into the deleterious effects of sugar on our bodies. In the US, the latest edition of the government’s official dietary guidelines includes a cap on sugar consumption. In the UK, the chancellor George Osborne has announced a new tax on sugary drinks. Sugar has become dietary enemy number one. ... This represents a dramatic shift in priority. For at least the last three decades, the dietary arch-villain has been saturated fat. When Yudkin was conducting his research into the effects of sugar, in the 1960s, a new nutritional orthodoxy was in the process of asserting itself. Its central tenet was that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet. Yudkin led a diminishing band of dissenters who believed that sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of maladies such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But by the time he wrote his book, the commanding heights of the field had been seized by proponents of the fat hypothesis. Yudkin found himself fighting a rearguard action, and he was defeated. ... In 1980, after long consultation with some of America’s most senior nutrition scientists, the US government issued its first Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines shaped the diets of hundreds of millions of people. Doctors base their advice on them, food companies develop products to comply with them. Their influence extends beyond the US. ... We tend to think of heretics as contrarians, individuals with a compulsion to flout conventional wisdom. But sometimes a heretic is simply a mainstream thinker who stays facing the same way while everyone around him turns 180 degrees. When, in 1957, John Yudkin first floated his hypothesis that sugar was a hazard to public health, it was taken seriously, as was its proponent. By the time Yudkin retired, 14 years later, both theory and author had been marginalised and derided. Only now is Yudkin’s work being returned, posthumously, to the scientific mainstream.
In 1997, during his final year as a doctoral student, Fogg spoke at a conference in Atlanta on the topic of how computers might be used to influence the behaviour of their users. He noted that “interactive technologies” were no longer just tools for work, but had become part of people’s everyday lives: used to manage finances, study and stay healthy. Yet technologists were still focused on the machines they were making rather than on the humans using those machines. ... Fogg called for a new field, sitting at the intersection of computer science and psychology, and proposed a name for it: “captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Captology later became behaviour design, which is now embedded into the invisible operating system of our everyday lives. The emails that induce you to buy right away, the apps and games that rivet your attention, the online forms that nudge you towards one decision over another: all are designed to hack the human brain and capitalise on its instincts, quirks and flaws. The techniques they use are often crude and blatantly manipulative, but they are getting steadily more refined, and, as they do so, less noticeable. ... The human brain releases pleasurable, habit-forming chemicals in response to social interactions, even to mere simulacra of them, and the hottest triggers are other people: you and your friends or followers are constantly prompting each other to use the service for longer. ... the internet’s potential to inform and enlighten was at loggerheads with the commercial imperative to seize and hold the attention of users by any means possible.
The gift for talent-spotting is mysterious, highly prized and celebrated. We love to hear stories about the baseball coach who can spot the raw ability of an erratic young pitcher, the boss who sees potential in the guy in the post room, the director who picks a soloist out of the chorus line. Talent shows are a staple of the TV schedules. We like to believe that certain people – sometimes ourselves – can just sense when a person has something special. But there is another method of spotting talent which doesn’t rely on hunches. In place of intuition, it offers data and analysis. Rather than relying on the gut, it invites us to use our heads. It tends not to make for such romantic stories, but it is effective – which is why, despite our affection, the hunch is everywhere in retreat. ... The low level of the validity ceiling makes sense when you think about the web of interacting forces – individual ability, organisational culture, social and economic change, pure luck – involved in any success or failure. Weather forecasters using vast databases can say with confidence if it’s going to rain only a few days in advance. Predicting the outcome of human endeavour is even more complex – imagine if clouds had feelings – yet we desperately want to believe our hunches can tell us what will happen in a year or five years’ time.