The USDA Now Encouraging Consumer Psychology Tactics in Order to Eat Healthier
In the never-ending struggle of right versus wrong, the proverbial
angel on our shoulders seems to be losing out to the devil.
Case in point, although 90 percent of consumers said they
knew that diet and exercise impacts their health, most still
make fairly poor choices when it comes to the food they eat.
What makes you choose which foods to eat? The USDA
is trying to figure it out.
Americans are curious in that respect, pouring millions of
dollars into diet books and weight-loss tools while simultaneously
throwing money at junk food, fast food and soda pop that is
sure to cancel out the effects of even the most motivating
Meanwhile, we insist that we know what healthy food is. We
know that we should exercise and not watch so much TV. Yet,
obesity rates continue to increase, as do a host of other
illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure.
It is quite a quandary, and one that researchers at the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Economic Research Service
(ERS) are trying to get to the bottom of. While economic factors,
like food prices and income, dietary
information and time preferences used to be regarded as
the bigwigs when it comes to influencing what you buy, ERS
researchers are now looking at it from a different perspective:
from inside your head.
Could Consumer Psychology Make You Eat Better?
ERS researchers believe that consumer psychology holds the
keys to why you buy ice cream instead of berries, or go to
the grocery store planning to stock up on veggies for a nice,
healthy stir-fry and leave with two frozen pizzas instead.
Clearly there is something else at play here, and ERS believes
it has to do with consumer psychology. "Findings from
behavioral and psychological studies indicate that people
regularly behave in ways that contradict some basic economic
assumptions," according to ERS.
Among the thousands of decisions you make each day, slight
factors, such as whether or not you're stressed, distracted
or tired, have a big impact on which road we travel. Meanwhile,
because we process so much information each day, our brains
make general judgment calls that spare us from having to analyze
each decision (how long should I spend brushing my hair? Should
I park in this parking spot or the one over there?).
Not surprisingly, our brains are not perfect nor are they
predictable, and neither are all of our decisions. Consumer
psychology takes into account some of the quirks that motivate
our decisions, and attempts to translate them into tangible
Would These Methods Influence Your Eating Habits?
Consumer psychology is a complex field because people
tend to make different choices depending on their mood
(stressed? happy?), time preferences (how long do I
have to decide?) and many other factors.
In the case of the ERS, they've come up with several methods
that they believe may influence consumers to make healthier
food choices. Among them:
Using prepaid "healthy cards" for food in grocery
stores and schools. The consumer could choose which foods
the card could buy (veggies, fruits) and which it could
not (potato chips, candy), thereby eliminating impulse
purchases, monitoring what your child buys at school and
allowing you to pay a flat rate (which studies suggest
Using online grocery shopping to pre-order your food.
This forces you to commit to your food choices ahead of
time and takes away impulse buying.
Smaller packages within a larger one. Putting pre-measured
portions into small bags, inside a larger one, makes it
easy for people to decide how much to eat.
More variety for healthy foods. People tend to eat more
when there's a variety of food available -- bad if you're
at a dessert bar, good if you're opting for a mixed veggie
Make healthy foods the "default option." People
tend to stick with the option that's the default, such
as a hamburger
and fries (rather than asking to switch the fries
for a side salad). Changing the default option to a healthy
choice (a hamburger and side salad) may encourage people
to eat better.
Do You Want the USDA to Use Psychology to Tell You What
Good intentions or not, the USDA's use of consumer psychology
signals a larger trend that has been going on among retailers
and grocery stores for years: using slick marketing tricks
to get you to buy what they want you to.
In the case of ERS, the "product" is supposedly
healthier foods. But in the rest of the world, consumer psychology
is used to make you buy more ... junk food, clothing, cars,
and just about anything else, just so you do buy it, regularly,
and in large quantities.
"Every type of retail store has lures and tricks in
place to get you to buy more, More, MORE than you ever intended
to when you walked through its doors," says author Brian
Vaszily in How
Stores are Secretly Using Barry Manilow to Rob You.
Ultimately, the consumer does have the last word when it
comes to choosing what to buy, and you can surely use this
to your advantage by only choosing foods and other products
that are good for your mind, body and well-being.
Stores are Secretly Using Barry Manilow to Rob You
the Health Risks of Processed Foods -- In Just a Few Quick,
Amber Waves June 2007
June 12, 2007