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Remembering Michael Mosley

Jun 11 2024 • 3 min read

We were very sad to hear about the death of Michael Mosley, whom I was fortunate enough to work with back in 2015. We wanted to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Michael, who was a superb science presenter and journalist, and always had a keen interest in how the latest research might translate into concrete changes in human behaviour.

I got to know Michael when I was asked to take part in his show Trust Me, I’m a Doctor together with a friend, Claire McDonald. The episode was about how to stick to health resolutions and Michael suggested running some field experiments. This was a great opportunity to put behavioural science into practice and have some fun.

We ran two experiments in Derby. The first experiment involved randomising volunteers at the University of Derby into one of three groups to encourage them to move more during the working day. The control group was given public health messages about the benefits of activity, one group was told to compete against each other, and one group was told to cooperate against each other. Overall, the competitive group showed the biggest improvements over four weeks, although there was a lot of variation.

The second experiment involved testing a set of interventions in a Derbyshire Co-op to encourage people to buy more fruit and vegetables. They included a cardboard cutout of Michael telling people “don’t forget your fruit and veg”, labels marking where to put fruit and veg in trolleys and baskets, more inspiring signage to advertise fruit and veg, and handing out free clementines as customers entered the store. Vegetables sales went up 8% over six weeks compared to our control store.

These were simple experiments used to communicate existing scientific insights in a fun and engaging way. Michael wanted viewers to relate to the topic and come to their own conclusions about what the evidence showed. This came through both on television and in person. Claire and I spent a couple of days filming with him in Derby. He was always warm, friendly and curious, eager to know what we were working on and happy to share his ideas for his next project.

This instinct for how to encourage people to engage in health and wellbeing programmes was taken up by Michael in much of his work. He was best known for popularising the 5:2 diet, a form of intermittent fasting. One of the core insights of the 5:2 regime is that it is much simpler for people to stick to a diet that has a set of simple and easy-to-follow rules than to expect people to count calories 24/7. In other words, just giving people the information is rarely enough. It’s as much about giving people the framework through which to understand how to change their behaviour.

He took these principles forward in his excellent radio shows and podcasts, incorporating tips and suggestions from behavioural science, such as harnessing social support, establishing new routines and habits, and - always - making the desired behaviours as simple as possible. This was exemplified in his podcast, Just One Thing, in which he emphasises making small, manageable changes rather than attempting radical overhauls. Did you know, for example, that it’s better to cook tomatoes to boost their health benefits?

So like the millions of others across the country, we will greatly miss Michael Mosley. But we also pay tribute to the great legacy that he leaves behind.

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