Gross burgerI’ll admit, I’m a bit of a foodie (let’s just say I don’t turn down a good cream sauce), but I also try to eat healthy food when I can. So I was a little shocked when I came across this study on food choices today.

In the experiment, 100 college students were presented with two menus. One included fries, chicken nuggets, and a baked potato, and another with those three items—plus a salad. Students were told they could choose one item. Participants’ levels of self-control were also measured through separate tests and then analyzed with their choices.

The first menu led to intuitive results: those with high self-control rarely chose fries. But the second menu—offering a healthy option, a salad—showed different behavior: participants with high self-control were “significantly more likely to choose the French fries.”

The reason:

“The authors suggest their finding shows that merely presenting a healthy option vicariously fulfils health-related eating goals, drives attention to the least-healthy choice and provides people with license to indulge in tempting foods.”

It strikes me that this could have some profound implications as cities across the country (including Seattle) take steps to educate diners about their food choices. Perhaps putting nutritional information on the menu will only worsen the problem. Diners feel personally fulfilled seeing a healthy option on the menu, and take license to go ahead and order the least-healthy entrée.

This could also have some surprising repercussions regarding choices beyond our food-based decision-making. What if this behavior extends to something like sustainable consumer choices? Given the choice between a bleach and non-bleach laundry detergent, we may be more likely to go with the latter. But throw an environmentally conscious choice in the mix, and we might decide we really want our whites the whitest.

The point is, this study suggests merely providing choices and information simply may not be enough or could even backfire—we need effective incentives to improve our behavior. What if fries were far more expensive than salads? Or what if there were health insurance incentives for staying in shape? In fact, if these findings translate to other types of consumer behavior, adding choices without incentives may do more harm than good.


Burger photo courtesy of Flickr user Ack Ook under a Creative Commons license.