Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I see a salad, so I choose the fries

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?


Anonymous said...

I think this has merit - I typically stock up on fruit and veggies as I strive to eat a healthy diet...YET I always seem to choose the sweet treats in my pantry when I want a snack. I think having the healthy food on hand makes me *think* I am meeting my goal of eating a healthy diet even though my actual food choices tend to demonstrate otherwise. WOW...need to ponder this some more. Thanks for sharing!

Tara Diversi said...

Hi Paul,

Nice post. As a dietitian interested in client behaviour, this is not shocking.

We know what eating healthy looks like, we know smoking is bad for us, we know the benefits of exercise, we know we should save more money.

We know what is good for us - yet we still do the opposite - sometimes unconsciously, often consciously.

As health professionals we need to look at a different approach to that we have been using. Educating people about the bad things they do to themselves is obviously not helping.

We need to use evidence from marketing, change management, psychology and consumer behaviour to inform how we 'help' people be healthier and not just rely on the scientific clinical evidence base.

3 of my favourite scholars in different areas provide 3 solutions health can borrow.

1. Create a sense of urgency (Kotter)
2. Make changes easy &/or fun (Thaler & Sunstein)
3. Remove health halos, make environmental changes (Wansink)

So, yes in short your post rings true.

Love your work!


HR said...


I'm new to your blog (today is my first time reading it) and I'm really enjoying it.

I'm shocked, but I don't know why, as I see people pick the fries over and over. If you want to look/feel good, you have to be mindful of what you put in your body. Do I pick fries? Sure! But, I also pick the salad a lot more.

I worry about the overweight children and the choices they make every day. These choices may have a lasting affect of the quality of life they lead.

Anonymous said...

Truly useful to read of such research. As a Financial Analyst in healthcare, this would not normally come across my desk. As a runner (40-50 miles per week) I can offer that this used to be me. The more exercise required of the body, the easier the healthy decisions will become. When I passed 25 miles per week, my cravings shifted significantly.

Anonymous said...

I see this in a tangential form on a regular basis in my own family - one of my relatives will often state she'd like "just a little light lunch," and then order a heavy high-fat meal. It's as if the expressing of the healthy goal somehow frees her to eat otherwise. So I can completely see how observing a healthy goal food item on a menu frees a different person to order the fries.

I wonder - if we have a treadmill sitting in the corner of the living room, does that increase our time sitting on the couch?

Jane Sherwin said...

This study has me laughing, as I recognize myself. I tend to agree with David Kessler who argues in his book, The End of Overeating, that avoiding the unhealthy foods is less a matter of self-discipline (No, no, I mustn't eat this stuff even though it's delicious)and more a matter of retraining neural circuits (these chocolate chip cookies are disgusting, like cigarette butts in a wet saucer). This approach has worked so far with the choc chip cookies, on which I used to gorge, but not yet with the oreos.

It's still discipline, but of a different sort.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately, it does ring true for me, an RN who is overweight, does know the greater nutritional value of a salad versus french fries, but who chooses, more often than not, the french fries when they are both available.

Amy said...

I am not surprised to see you found this to be true. As others have said, we all know the value of choosing healthy options, but in my opinion, many haven't actually seen those values. As someone who made a commitment to make a healthy lifestyle change (and losing 50-some pounds because of it), I now can make the conscious effort to make the healthier choice because I know its benefits. I also personally believe that the food choice our parents make for us as a child hold a lot of weight (pun intended) later in life. The french fries should be a rare treat - such as a slice of cake. Seeing a salad, not as an option, but as the obvious is the way to go. Great post!

Anthony Stanowski said...

We're working with researchers Kevin Volpp, MD, Ph.D. with the Wharton School/Univ of Penn School of Medicine, and George Lowenstein Ph.D. of Carnegie Melon University on using the theories of behavioral economics to alter food choice patterns. The premise is to make it easier for people to choose healthier food, and to "convert" food nutrition jargon into language that people understand. For example, one research project that we implemented at six client hospitals across the US focused on using calorie information alone, exercise equivalents, and calories & exercise equivalents as part of an education process to determine if employees who use a cafeteria are likely to switch their food choices to healthier choices.
The USDA Economic Research Services recently ran a two day seminar examining implications of research like this, which I was fortunate to participate.
By rethinking the problem, we believe we can make a difference in improving the health of defined populations.

Anthony Stanowski, FACHE
ARAMARK Healthcare