Spend enough time in health research or clinical medicine and you can’t help but feel that people are irrational decision makers. There are those who watch what they eat, avoiding excesses of fat, meat, and sweet, then spend their summer vacation soaking up skin cancer on the beach. Or the consummate 3-mile-a-day runner with negligible body fat and organic cotton clothing, who tempts fate with a daily motorcycle commute through stiff city traffic. The college educated, generally sensible professional who takes weight loss supplements dressed with crazy claims, and even crazier ingredients. And after a long week of working hard and being healthy, you’ve earned that Friday night beer binge, right?
One of my favorite behavior change theories holds that people tend to be quantum thinkers, and not linear. Essentially the point is that we don’t arrive at a decision by consciously weighing the evidence, considering the pros and cons, then mathematically determining the best course of action. Instead, we change behavior in relatively unpredictable ways, for unpredictable reasons. After years of unsuccessful attempts to change it may be the seemingly smallest, silliest motivation that actually prompts action: A story in the newspaper; a conversation with your child; hearing the same change-message for the hundredth time, just communicated in a more compelling manner.
Two new studies about nutritional habits, however, suggest that given the opportunity, food shoppers do engage their noggins when making choices. Best of all, their healthier choices are equally or more profitable than more impulsive, ignorance-based decisions. In the first study, Spanish researchers interviewed 400 shoppers about breakfast biscuits, and found that while brand names were most influential in purchasing decisions, consumers were willing to pay more for products that sported detailed nutritional information as opposed to simply being labeled a “light” calorie option. In the second study, US researchers replaced the normal menus at a college dining hall with menus describing the total calories; serving size; and fat, carbohydrate and protein content of each meal. The day that this new information was made available, the average calorie content of meals consumed dropped by about 2% and remained lower for the entire time that the detailed nutritional information was available. While it was a small decrease, it was statistically significant. Best of all for the dining hall, revenues remained exactly the same, and the same number of meals were sold. Once the nutritional info was removed, eating habits returned to normal.
These are two small, early studies. But they raise at least two potentially important points: That when given enough information in the proper setting, people may make healthier food choices; and being transparent about the relative healthfulness of meals is not only the right thing to do, it makes business sense. If your customers are willing to pay more to know more about what they are eating, why wouldn’t you provide them with that information?