The true story of how Captain Cook solved the problem of scurvy on his ships.

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When making decisions, we can be subtlety influenced to make a certain choice depending on how it is presented to us.

For seamen in the 1700s one of the biggest threats was scurvy.

It is a rather unpleasant disease that rots your gums and then, if left untreated, will eventually kill you.

The famous British explorer Captain James Cook travelled on long voyages where scurvy posed a real threat to his crews’ survival.

At the time, there was a poor understanding of what actually caused it. (Hint: It’s a lack of Vitamin C). Cook remarked that the Dutch sailors seemed to suffer far less than their British counterparts so he enquired as to what they might be doing that was different.

After a period of observation, he remarked that they all carried barrels of sauerkraut onboard.

So Cook ordered for his ships to follow suit.

However, having the sauerkraut (which contains small amounts of Vitamin C) onboard and getting his sailors to actually eat the stuff were two different things.

The British sailors hated the foreign ‘kraut’ and wanted to stick to their own food.

So how did he get his cantankerous crew to eat sauerkraut?

Well…for a while he served it only to his officers whilst making sure that they ate it in front of the crew. It wasn’t long before envy set in.

Then, one day, he said “Well, I suppose the men can have it one day a week.”

In one stroke, he had his whole crew eating the stuff, saving many lives and ensuring the success of his many overseas voyages.

This is a great example of the technique known as ‘framing’.

It deals with how we make different decisions depending on how the information is presented to us. Because context is so important to us when making decisions we can be subtlety influenced to make a certain choice if the context or ‘frame’ of something is altered.

For more great stories like these and to learn about the behavioural psychology behind them check out our course on Behavioural Economics.

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