I was talking with the MBA students at Duke's Fuqua School of Business about the obesity epidemic in the United States, and they told me about some interesting research published last year. Gavin Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology, and his colleagues describe an effect called "vicarious goal fulfillment." Excerpts:
In a lab experiment, participants possessing high levels of self-control related to food choices (as assessed by a pre-test) avoided french fries, the least healthy item on a menu, when presented with only unhealthy choices. But when a side salad was added to this menu, they became much more likely to take the fries.
... Although fast-food restaurants and vending machine operators have increased their healthy offerings in recent years, “analysts have pointed out that sales growth in the fast-food industry is not coming from healthy menu items, but from increased sales of burgers and fries,” Fitzsimons said. “There is clearly public demand for healthy options, so we wanted to know why people aren’t following through and purchasing those items.”
An abstract of the article from the Journal of Consumer Research is available here. (You will need a subscription to read the full text.) Here's another quote from the news story:
“[T]he presence of a salad on the menu has a liberating effect on people who value healthy choices,” Fitzsimons said. “We find that simply seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the healthy option fulfills their need to make healthy choices, freeing the person to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice. In fact, when this happens people become so detached from their health-related goals, they go to extremes and choose the least healthy item on the menu.”
Readers, is this what you do? Does this ring true?