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Food Choices More Unhealthy When Made for Others Says New Research from School's Marketing Department

April 14, 2010
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New research reveals that when selecting food while grocery shopping or ordering at a restaurant people tend to choose more wisely for themselves than they do for others. The research, conducted by Juliano Laran, an assistant professor of marketing at the School, finds that choices made for others, including family members, tend to be less healthy and more indulgent than the choices people make for themselves. The findings, to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research in August, indicate that this occurs because people try to exert self-control when making choices for themselves and presume, when making choices for others, that others do not exert self-control. 

In addition, the research suggests that there is a preference for a combination of healthy and indulgent items such as products in varying degrees of calories but similar taste and formula.

The research findings are based on several studies:

  • In Study 1, approximately 100 people were asked to make a sequence of four choices from 16 items that were healthy (raisins, celery sticks, cheerios, low fat yogurt, baby carrots, granola bar, rice cake and an apple) or indulgent (chocolate bar, Chips Ahoy cookies, cheese curls, Doritos chips, ice cream, doughnuts, Oreos and fruit roll-ups). Half of the participants were asked to choose four items for themselves, while the other half were [asked to choose four items for a friend. Results showed that, when making choices for themselves, participants chose a balance of healthy and indulgent food items. When making choices for others, however, participants chose mostly indulgent food items. Participants chose close to 30 percent more indulgent items for others than for themselves.
  • Study 2 laid out a scenario where close to 360 participants were told about an initial behavior performed by "Mr. A."  The first group was told that Mr. A found a granola bar and a chocolate truffle left in his kitchen.  He wonders which one he should eat and decides on the chocolate truffle. The second group was told of the same scenario but that Mr. A chose the granola bar (a self-control condition). Participants were then asked to assume that Mr. A was still hungry and were asked which type of food item he would eat, a fatty, richer food item or a healthy, not so tasty food item.  Fifty-nine percent of participants in the first group said he'd once again eat a fatty food item.  Sixty-three percent of those in the second group also said he'd likely choose a fatty food item.  These findings indicate that people feel others will make mostly indulgent choices for themselves, both after indulging and after performing self-control.
  • Study 3, conducted with 135 consumers walking out of a supermarket, showed that consumers who bought only for themselves made healthier choices than those who bought for other people, such as family members, a friend, or a roommate. Consumers bought equally indulgent items when they were buying for a family member, friend, or roommate.
  • Study 4 showed that only when consumers are made highly aware that others also have a health goal do their choices for others become as balanced as their personal choices.

"Currently, general grocery stores (those that do not specialize in organic or high-end items) assume incorrectly that shoppers like to indulge all of the time," said Laran.  "By becoming aware of the personal goal of many shoppers to strike an indulgent-healthy balance, these stores can begin to offer a greater variety of popular food categories (pizza, for instance) in several different calorie grades.  This would make a real difference in sales and customer satisfaction." 

The study also implies that one of the reasons the population gets more and more obese may be the fact that a lot of the food people consume is chosen by other people - like friends throwing a party or parents buying for their children.  Therefore, while consumers may try to make personal choices that are balanced and healthy, they are pushed to indulge through the choices of others.

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