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School of Business Research Shows One Tiny Chocolate May Cause Overindulgent Eating & Shopping

February 10, 2009
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Research Shows One Tiny Chocolate May Cause Overindulgent Eating & Shopping

Heart shaped box of chocolate truffles According to new research by Juliano Laran, assistant professor of marketing at the School of Business Administration and Chris Janiszewski of the University Florida Gainesville, there are reasons some people overindulge in unhealthy foods, buy more than they want, and party more than is good for them — and why others seem immune to such weaknesses.

The full report, to appear in the April edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, says shoppers can become triggered to indulge, unknowingly, by walking into a store and accepting a sample of chocolate from a salesperson

The study looks at how people manage competing goals like eating healthy versus unhealthy, and being frugal versus being a spendthrift. In a series of eight tests, involving close to 300 study participants each, Laran and Janiszewski used chocolate truffles to examine what triggers such behaviors.

 Juliano Laran
Juliano Laran, assistant
professor of marketing
at the School of Business

“We gave the participants a chocolate truffle and had them eat it versus resist it,” said Laran.  “We then observed how much they desired certain food items and found that if the goal of indulging was activated by eating the sweet, participants tended to keep pursuing that goal (of indulgence) until they felt it was met by eating more and more truffles.  The participants also showed a preference for fattier foods (ice cream, pizza, and chips) versus healthier foods (a salad, apple, and granola bar) when indicating how much they wanted a series of food items at the moment.”

Additional findings are as follows:

  • Conversely, study subjects who resisted the truffle activated the goal of healthy eating and showed a preference for healthier foods versus fatty ones.
  • In one experiment, those who enjoyed the first truffle also valued non-food consumer luxuries, such as Apple computers, designer shirts, high-end TVs and cruises as compared with those who resisted the truffles.
  • Once a goal was achieved, it was turned off, and a rebound occurred.  Participants who were given a subtle cue that one truffle was enough were more likely to select healthy snacks.  This “rebound effect” was described by the researchers to be like a thermostat realizing it made the room hot enough and therefore switching on the air conditioning to cool it down.

    “This research should speak loud and clear to stores selling candies,” said Laran.  “It would be a very good idea to offer customers sample treats at the door but not to a point where they will think they have indulged too much. And, shoppers … beware!”

    In addition, for those study participants who were told “good job” for resisting the urge of truffles, once they felt good about themselves for reaching their healthy-eating goal, the study shows that they then shut this healthy goal off and allowed their indulgence goal to rise to the surface. In this case, they wanted to eat the fattier food items.
    Laran speculates that this may be why dieters so often rebound when setting a goal (“I want to lose 10 pounds”) and reaching it – this could unconsciously turn off the goal in favor of a competing one, like eating more.

    “The secret to avoiding switching back to an unhealthy craving is to keep renovating the active goal so you never really reach it, Laran said.” Instead of celebrating the 10-pound loss, renovate the goal to losing inches, or performing better in a physical test.”

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