Science - May 16, 2013

Distractions hinder healthy choice

Hedonistic products tie in more with intuitive thinking.

The choice for healthy food is a rational process. If this thought process is disrupted, for example by distractions, a person will be more likely to make an intuitive choice, in other words opt for the unhealthy product. This is the conclusion reached by Gerrit Antonides and Leonie Cramer of the Economics of Consumers and Households group in their research. They published their findings in the journal Appetite.
Antonides gave 1614 secondary school students a candy bar (hedonistic/unhealthy) or an apple (beneficial/healthy) at random. The students were then allowed to exchange the snacks with one another. Those who had been given an apple were all too eager to do the exchange: about 50 percent wanted a candy bar instead. On the other hand, only 19 percent of those who were given a candy bar preferred an apple.
A group of these test subjects were then instructed to remember a number with seven digits, which was quite a chore for the memory. The other classes were asked to remember only two digits. Antonides suspected that thinking about a long number would hinder rational reasoning, and that would make people choose more intuitively.
Homo economicus
The experiment appears to have confirmed this suspicion. The proportion of students who wanted to swap a candy bar for a healthy apple, dropped from 19 to 12 percent in the group who had to remember the difficult number. On the other hand, the percentage of students who wanted to swap their apple remained the same. Antonides thinks the effect is only seen with hedonistic products because these 'tie in more with intuitive thinking'.  
The paper's reviewers proposed two other explanations. First, the products were not of equal value. A real Homo economicus would have chosen the more expensive one: the candy bar or a packet of potato chips. Second, social norms could play a part. Do boys choose something unhealthy to look tough? Antonides is not overly bothered by these criticisms, although on hindsight he wishes he had taken the children's eating habits into account as well.  

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