Eller Research Studies How Emotional Factors Can Influence Food Decision Making

Martin Reimann

Recent research from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona shows that there can be several ways in which a person can be persuaded to choose to eat healthier without actually telling them to directly.

Martin Reimann, associate professor of marketing in the Eller College, has conducted several studies on how emotional factors can nudge consumers to make healthier food decisions.

One such way in which emotional factors can persuade consumers to choose a healthier option is through the use of an incentive.

“In several studies, we found that consumers are motivated to choose a smaller-sized food portion over its larger-sized counterpart when the smaller-sized portion is paired with a nonfood premium—a small toy for kids or the prospect of a monetary reward for adults,” says Reimann.  

These experiments were conducted among adults, high school students, and children.

The incentive that was used with adults was a lottery ticket included with the purchase of a six-inch sub instead of a foot long. The catch: they were the same price. Yet, many consumers were enticed to pay for the 6-inch sub if it included a lottery ticket, despite unknown winning probabilities.

High school students were evaluated in the same way but were offered earbuds instead of lottery tickets. The results were very similar to those of the adult experiment in that a majority of the high school students preferred the six-inch sub with the nonfood premium as opposed to the full-sized sub without the nonfood premium.

Lastly, children were assessed by being offered a McDonalds Happy Meal, which included a burger, fries and a yogurt with no toy and a healthier option with a toy. Reimann once again found that the children opted for the healthier option with the toy.

“It creates a win-win situation for both the food providers and the consumer,” says Reimann. “Companies are still selling food at the same price and continue to make money from it, while consumer are eating healthier and receiving non-food rewards.”

In a different experiment, Reimann suggests that altering the presentation and order of food in a buffet will cause consumers to eat fewer calories.

“When selecting foods in a sequence, individuals are influenced by the first item they see and tend to make their subsequent food choices on the basis of this first item,” says Reimann.

By conducting a field study in a school cafeteria, Reimann found that altering the order of foods presented, did indeed affect the way students ate.

Instead of presenting the food in a more traditional manner—first salad or soup, then entrée and last dessert—the sequence was changed, and the dessert was offered at the beginning of the buffet instead of at the end.

“When an indulgent dish is the first item, lower-calorie dishes are subsequently chosen and overall caloric consumption is lower,” says Reimann. “The reason we believe this happens is because you’re frontloaded with something that’s already on the richer side, so you decide to go easier on the other choices.”

Reimann’s research stream was supported by a small grant from the Eller Health Center for Management Innovations in Healthcare and can be found in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, the Journal of Experimental Psychology and PLOS ONE.