Will mandatory calorie labeling change food behavior?

Heads up! The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently finalized two rulings, effective December 1, 2015, regarding calorie and nutrition labeling for food items sold in vending machines and restaurants.

Food Labeling; Calorie Labeling of Articles of Food in Vending Machines*:

 “The declaration of accurate and clear calorie information for food sold from vending machines will make calorie information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.”

 Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail

Food Establishments*:

Providing accurate, clear, and consistent nutrition information, including the calorie content of foods, in restaurants and similar retail food establishments will make such nutrition information available to consumers in a direct and accessible manner to enable consumers to make informed and healthful dietary choices.”

Photo by Flickr user Steve W

Typical American vending machine circa 2006

Although long overdue and incredibly welcome, the statute as written implies that information is not just necessary but a sufficient means of healthier eating. The information enables the consumer to make decisions with the optimism that knowledge will be the impetus to a healthier lifestyle. The FDA is right that knowledge and information are essential to healthier eating, but assuming that consumers will make informed and healthful dietary choices simply because the options are there is wishful thinking. People know the “right” thing to do or eat a lot of the time, but simply knowing doesn’t translate into doing—intention is also an important element, among other factors like perceived control over behavior and past behavior1.

I’m not criticizing the FDA for not doing more nor am I dismissing the effort put forth by health advocates who worked for these rulings for decades. These mandates represent progress, but they are not sufficient. Labeling and providing calorie totals is hardly enough to curb calorie intake. In a 2009 study that looked at fast-food choices of people** in New York after the introduction of a menu-labeling mandate, researchers found no difference in calories purchased compared to a control group in a city where no menu-labeling mandate existed. This finding was despite the fact that nearly 30% of participants indicated that the calorie labels influenced their decisions2. Awareness doesn’t automatically translate into action.

In fact, sometimes knowing the healthiest option on the menu is enough to make someone choose the least healthy option. Though the decision seems counterintuitive, the behavior exists, and it’s called vicarious goal fulfillment3. Basically, what that means is that people see the salad item on the menu and its calorie total, and it reminds them of the salad they had last week or the one that they promise they’ll eat tomorrow. Feeling justified, people can then order the bacon cheeseburger. It sounds completely counter-intuitive, but the evidence exists.

Let’s take a look at some of the other factors at play when making food decisions in addition to calorie information:

Living with the rule of thumb “everything in moderation:” We all know this mantra. Nutritionists and laypeople alike have endorsed it as an effective means of weight management, but the amount that constitutes moderation is ambiguous, which allows people to interpret it as they see fit. Does moderation mean eating a single cookie or just one sleeve of cookies in a package? For most people, moderation depends on the amount they typically eat. People tend to interpret information in a self-serving way, so those who do eat an entire sleeve of cookies may genuinely believe the amount is moderate, particularly if the alternative is to eat the entire package. In fact, research I collaborated on found that people considered moderation to be slightly more than what they typically ate4. In other words, everyone thought that they ate in moderation, but the definition of moderation varied dramatically by person.

These findings suggest that visible calorie or nutrition information won’t necessarily alter the food people choose when ordering or at a vending machine. Instead, people are more likely to order the same food and then shift their definition of moderation to match what they ate.

Eating with others: An abundance of evidence finds that eating with other people influences everything from what we eat to how much5. Generally, people eat more when they eat with other people unless the others are strangers6. When eating companions are unknown or merely acquaintances, people are much more likely to limit how much they eat so as not to seem sloppy or greedy or any of the other labels that are placed on people who eat “a lot.” Think about a first date you had that involved dinner. What did you order? Did you decide not to order something in particular because of what it might signify to your date? Did you eat more carefully than usual? Maybe you ate less than you usually do. Eating with people you do know may impose a separate set of social pressures to keep up with the group, whether that means ordering dessert for everyone to split or getting a salad with the dressing on the side so you aren’t the odd person out.

Even the gender and appearance of people who are around us in our eating environment can influence the food we choose7. For example, people who order food after a thin person who has ordered a lot of food are more likely to increase the amount they eat, too. The reasoning seems to be that if it’s okay for a thin person to eat that much, then I can, too.  Much of this behavior doesn’t occur at the level of conscious awareness; rather, it’s a quick decision we make automatically without necessarily realizing the aspects that factored into it.

I should note that, although these trends apply across all genders in the United States (where the majority of the research reported here has been conducted), social norms differ for men and women regarding how they should eat. Whereas men may feel pressured to eat more meat to be masculine, women may feel that they must eat less or something “light” so they don’t seem too unfeminine8.

Does this salad make me look feminine?

Does this salad make me look feminine?

All of these factors that you may or may not have been aware of influence your eating patterns,  often above and beyond objective information like calorie labels. In other words, your eating  companions are much more likely to influence your decision on their own or in combination  with the calorie information than the calorie info by itself.

For more information on how eating with others is different from eating alone, keep an eye out  for our upcoming mini-series on social eating.

 Licensing: That feeling of deservingness you have when you worked your butt off earlier in  the day or decided not to have dessert after lunch, for example, that makes you feel entitled to a treat. In simplest terms, licensing is self-justified indulging of (often unhealthy) foods for a variety of reasons, including feeling that you deserve it, availability of the food, intentions to make up for the indulgence later, curiosity about the food, feeling that it’s an exception to what you usually eat, and irresistibility of the food9. See our Justifying Indulgence on Thanksgiving post for more details. In a licensing situation, calorie information is likely to be less important than if someone had not previously decided to indulge.

Another possibility in a licensing situation with visible nutrition information is that the food item that people plan to indulge in may not contain as many calories as people expected, which may lead them to order additional calories at that time or later that day. Maybe you weren’t planning to order fries with your burger, but now that you know the burger only has 300 calories, all bets are off.


These are just a few of the factors at play when people make decisions about what and how much to eat. Most of these influences will occur regardless of whether calorie or nutrition information is available. Furthermore, the very people who may be put off by the calorie amounts likely weren’t eating much of that food anyway. At the other extreme is the group of people who will eat whatever they want, regardless of the calorie amounts. A middle group of consumers exists, however, that we haven’t yet discussed. That group is composed of people who generally try to watch what they eat but can’t be bothered too much by it. And this middle group might be bigger than the other two. Maybe it’s the category you fall into. That group may make food decisions for other groups that wouldn’t change their patterns, like a mother or father deciding for a child. That middle group might also be people who have the intention to eat better, but McDonald’s is the only restaurant in their town. For this middle group, visible calorie and nutrition information may start to speak louder than the other factors. Visible calorie and nutrition information may eventually make its way into people’s working knowledge of nutrition, and knowledge is an initial necessary step to intentional behavior change.

Read more about the statutes here. If you’re interested in many of the other aspects of food decisions, check out Brian Wansink’s work here.

* Only vendors and companies operating at least 20 vending machines/stores are required to follow this new mandate.

** This study focused on low-income people, who may have the additional goal beyond health of getting the most calories for the least amount of money. Unfortunately, these two goals are often at odds with each other.

1 Ajzen. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

2 Elbel, Kersh, Brescoll, & Dixon. (2009). Calorie labeling and food choices: A first look at the effects on low-income people in New York City. Health Affairs.

3 Wilcox, Vallen, Block, & Fitzsimons. (2009). Vicarious goal fulfillment: When the mere presence of a healthy option leads to an ironically indulgent decision. Journal of Consumer Research.

4 vanDellen, Isherwood, & Delose. (2014). Everything in moderation? Moderation messages are ineffective for healthy eating. Unpublished manuscript.

5,6 Herman, Roth, & Polivy. (2003). Effects of the presence of others on food intake: A normative interpretation. Psychological Bulletin.

7 McFerran, Dahl, Fitzsimons, & Morales. (2010). I’ll have what she’s having: Effects of social influence and body type on the food choice of others. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

8 Bublitz, Peracchio, & Block. (2010). Why did I eat that? Perspectives on food decision making and dietary restraint. Journal of Consumer Psychology.

9 Taylor, Webb, & Sheeran. (2013). ‘I deserve a treat!’: Justifications for indulgence undermine the translation of intentions into action. British Journal of Social Psychology.


Obesity and public health campaigns: Finding the Holy Grail

Obesity is a disease. It has been since June 2013, at least according to the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA formally recognized obesity as a disease with the intention that such a classification would prompt additional funding for obesity research. However, a set of studies published in Psychological Science1 earlier this year suggests that designating obesity as a disease without considering the psychological consequences has a variety of positive and negative implications for obese and average-weight individuals.

Across a set of three studies where more than 50% of the 700+ participants were classified as overweight or obese according to the Body Mass Index (BMI), psychology researchers Crystal Hoyt, Jeni Burnette, and Lisa Auster-Gussman found that obese individuals reported significant decreases in weight concern and body dissatisfaction when they received the message that obesity was a disease, whereas average weight individuals demonstrated no such pattern when exposed to the same message. At first glance, this finding suggests that the “obesity as a disease” model is effective at increasing body satisfaction and, perhaps, decreasing internalized stigma.

Choose Health LA County ad campaign

Example of weight management-focused (incremental mindset) public health strategy

At a recent talk I attended, Dr. Burnette discussed these findings as well as related findings from some more recent studies about the relationship between the obesity as disease message and an entity mindset. An entity mindset is the belief that an ability or characteristic, such as intelligence or weight, is fixed and not malleable as a result of effort or behavior change2,3. Burnette suggested that believing obesity is a disease implies that weight is static, that it’s not people’s lack of willpower or behavior making them obese, but rather, their genes and physiologies. This notion seems to decrease anti-fat prejudice and blame placed on obese individuals4. This approach seems promising: reducing stigma and blame, as well as increasing the likelihood of research funding.

There’s a catch, of course. In addition to the decreased weight concern and body dissatisfaction, obese individuals who saw the disease message were also more likely to make hypothetical unhealthy food choices, unlike average weight individuals or obese individuals exposed to the weight-management control. The researchers suggest that these food choices may be a downstream consequence of the disease label and the entity mindset it may induce. That is, if obesity indicates a physiological malfunction, thus making weight control efforts ineffective, why bother trying? The very message that decreases blame seems to reduce motivation to manage weight, too.

The belief that weight loss efforts are ineffective for obese individuals is not completely implausible. Food researcher Traci Mann and fellow obesity researchers have found that long-term weight loss for obese folks is the exception, not the norm. Receiving the message that obesity is a disease and fixed may be affirming to an obese person who was previously told that weight loss attempts were a personal failing. Regardless, it could be argued that the positive impact of affirmation and acceptance is diminished if it’s accompanied by regular unhealthy food choices.

In contrast, obese participants who were shown the control message of standard weight management strategies demonstrated a different pattern. Their concern for their weight did not decrease, but nor did they subsequently choose higher-calorie, unhealthy foods. The implication, which the researchers mention, is that some level of mild body dissatisfaction may be motivating to eat healthier foods and to be more active. But these findings present something of a double-edged sword, as Dr. Burnette mentioned at her recent talk.

The weight management (control) message may have induced an incremental mindset of weight, the alternative to an entity mindset about weight. An incremental mindset affords people more agency by implying that weight can be altered, presumably through behavior change. Accompanying empowerment, however, is the shift in blame away from an obese person’s genes and onto them and their behavior. As Burnette said, promoting either mindset to obese and non-obese individuals alike can have negative effects.

So, what’s a public health professional to do, particularly when obesity has already been officially labeled a disease? It’s exactly that sort of question that Burnette and her collaborators would like to pursue in future research. Specifically, how should public health messages be structured to motivate and promote an incremental mindset for obese individuals without the body image costs and blame? No obvious or simple answers exist yet. Burnette says that the answer to that question would be “the Holy Grail.”

Anyone out there come across research that might answer this or have a suggestion? Post it in the comments!



1Hoyt, C.L., Burnette, J.L., & Auster-Gussman, L. (2014). “Obesity is a disease”: Examining the self-regulatory impact of this public-health message. Psychological Science, 25, 997-1002.

2 Dweck, C.S., Chiu, C.Y., & Hong, Y.Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 267-285.

3 Burnette, J.L., O’Boyle, E., VanEpps, E.M., Pollack, J.M., & Finkel, E.J. (2013). Mindsets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 655-701.

4Monterosso, J., Royzman, E.B., & Schwartz, B. (2005). Explaining away responsibility: Effects of scientific explanation on perceived culpability. Ethics & Behavior, 15, 139-158.


Mental Health Stigma, or, Why We Should Leave Amanda Alone

Image from NY Daily News

Image from NY Daily News

The inevitable has happened: Amanda Bynes has been put under a 72-hour psychiatric hold in LA. Her parents are seeking conservatorship of her affairs after over a year of bizarre behavior, most recently in the form of some severe Twitter allegations* about her father abusing her as a child, and a tweet recanting her statement and blaming it on a microchip her father had implanted in her brain. This is a familiar story. One can easily remember Britney Spears going through similar issues, attacking paparazzi with an umbrella and famously shaving her head. Or Lindsay Lohan, landing in court case after court case, and suffering from substance abuse. But it’s all too easy to forget that these celebrities are people, and they are going through (or have gone through) some mental health issues. And so have a lot of people.

Mental health diagnoses can be things like phobias, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, substance abuse and schizophrenia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2012 approximately 4.1% of US adults were suffering, or had suffered, with a serious mental illness within the last year. That might sound small, but that only accounts for a serious mental health diagnosis. The same year approximately 18.6% of US adults had suffered from mental illness in general. That’s almost 1 in 5! So, in reality, what Bynes is going through is a common experience, and she doesn’t deserve increased scrutiny about her mental health state just because she’s been in the public eye since she was seven.* * Let’s make like Britney and leave Amanda alone.

There’s a well-known relationship between stress and mental disorders. Obviously, the attention a celebrity receives is bound to be stressful, but sources of stress can range from your job to childhood abuse. Some illnesses even appear to be more common in populations of people who experienced some type of extreme or chronic stress (1,2). Working full time and juggling school from a young age could definitely act as a source of stress, which may help to explain the incidence of mental disorder in people who were child stars (and, similarly, in impoverished populations; 3). Clinicians believe that something called the gene by environment interaction (G x E) plays a large role in mental illness (4,5). Basically, it means that even if you have some sort of hereditary vulnerability to a mental illness, it may take environmental stressors to actually end up developing the disorder. Illnesses like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may be especially impacted by environmental factors. Soldiers deployed to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom had a PTSD prevalence rate of 19.3% (6). Mental illness may ultimately be something that is brought out in us by our circumstances, rather than something that we “have.”

Regardless of how people come to be diagnosed with a mental disorder we know that mental illnesses are just as debilitating as physical ones. People living with mental illness may suffer from symptoms ranging from anhedonia and rumination, to things like delusions and suicidal thoughts. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 90% of the people who commit suicide have received a mental health diagnosis. One of the reasons may be the amount of stigma that surrounds mental illness. Stigma can reduce self-esteem and opportunities to be social, and increase stereotyping and prejudice (7). There is also evidence that populations that endure prejudice are more likely to develop a mental illness, illustrating the complexity of the G x E interaction (8, 9, 10).

So let’s give Bynes’ bizarre behavior a pass. If she’d been diagnosed with cancer, people would empathize with her and leave her alone instead of hounding her and putting her in the spotlight. Mental illness is just as serious as any illness a person can have, and it’s past time we learned to see people beyond their maladies, regardless.

*Anyone who knows me well will know how much it pained me to write the phrase “severe Twitter allegations.”

**Ok, ok, she was 8 in this one. Sue me. I didn’t have the energy to deep Google it. I also totally had those Barbie™ hair extensions.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, there is help. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, helpguide.org , or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255).


  1. Belle, D. (1990). Poverty and women’s mental health. American Psychologist, 45(3), 385-389.
  1. Horwitz, A. V., Widom, C. S., McLaughlin, J., & White, H. R. (2001). The impact of childhood abuse and neglect on adult mental health: A prospective study. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(2), 184-201.
  1. Liem, R., & Liem, J. (1978). Social class and mental illness reconsidered: The role of economic stress and social support. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 19(2), 139-156.
  1. Lesch, K. P. (2004). Gene-environment interaction and the genetics of depression. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 29(3), 174-184.
  1. van Os, J., Rutten, B. P. F., & Poulton, R. (2008). Gene-environment interactions in Schizophrenia: Review of epidemiological findings and future directions. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 34(6), 1066-1082.
  1. Hoge, C. W., Castro, C. A., Messer, S. C., McGurk, D., Cotting, D. I., & Koffman, R. L. (2004). Combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health problems, and barriers to care. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 13-22.
  1. Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614-625.
  1. Mays, V. M., & Cochran, S. D. (2001). Mental health correlates of perceived discrimination among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 91(11), 1869-1876.
  2. Meyer, I. H. (1995). Minority stress and mental health in gay men. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 36(1), 38-56.
  3.  Meyer, I. H. (2003). Prejudice, social stress, and mental health in lesbian, gay, and bisexual populations: Conceptual issues and research evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 129(5), 674-697.



The Real Threat of Ebola

The largest Ebola outbreak in history is happening right now in Africa, with the first confirmed case diagnosed in the US just this past week. Admittedly, reports of Thomas Eric Duncan’s health are not good, with his status being upgraded to critical yesterday. But we also know that he is not getting the experimental drug that the patients brought back from Africa all received (Kent Brantly, Nancy Writebol, Richard Sacra, and an unidentified doctor).** And we know that his family and those closest to him are being monitored by the Center for Disease Control, as well as over 100 people suspected of coming into contact with Duncan.

Screen Shot 2014-10-03 at 6.48.27 PM

Image from Vox.com

This infographic making its own viral path through the interwebs pretty much sums up what we know about getting this disease: Ebola is not an airborne virus, and must be contracted by coming into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. This article provides a great overview of how an Ebola infection can occur (spoiler alert: the big 3 risk factors are caring for a patient at home, treating a sick person without using protective wear or preparing victims for funerals). Overall, the death toll of the current outbreak hovers around 50%. So what does this tell us about the spread of and vulnerability to this virus? Essentially that it is HIGHLY unlikely that you will contract Ebola here in the US, and you probably should not be traveling to West Africa any time soon. In addition, my mom would tell you to wash your hands and carry hand-sanitizer (she’s right). But psychologically, it’s a bit more complex.

Over 100 Americans died of the flu during the 2013-2014 flu season, over 580,000 people died of cancer in 2013 and over 52,000 people died of pneumonia in 2011. So far, there has been 1 diagnosis of Ebola in the US, and 0 deaths, yet many people are absolutely terrified that they will catch Ebola at an airport or other public space. Overestimating the likelihood of the occurrence of an event based on the amount of available examples is something called the availability heuristic (1,2). One reason that we are more concerned about dying from Ebola than dying from the flu is because we can think of a lot of available examples of people who have died from Ebola, and we can think of no or very few examples of people dying from the Flu. Yet, we know it is far more common in the US.

Now that we know how unlikely it is that we will get Ebola (phew!), and we know why people are reacting so viscerally to the management of Ebola in the US, let’s turn to a potentially huge problem of this outbreak: Disease threat and it’s associated behaviors. Disease threat is managed interpersonally by something evolutionary psych researchers call the Behavioral Immune System (BIS). The BIS works by subconsciously preventing you from exposing yourself to disease threats, stopping illness before it happens (3). One of the ways this happens is through the disgust response (4). Bodily fluids tend to be fairly gross, causing a visceral reaction and encouraging people to get as far away from them as possible. This response is generally a good thing in terms of limiting sources of contagion, but it can also work through ethnocentrism (5). There is evidence that when people are feeling threatened by disease, they are more likely to show preference for their own groups, they are more likely to exhibit conformity and they exclude outgroups (6).   Unfortunately, this effect also tends to isolate people with physical disabilities or disfigurements, who are somehow seen as possible contagion sources even though the vast majority of disabilities are not the result of contagious disease (7, 8).

The risk of being exposed to increased prejudice and brusqueness from our fellow Americans is a far greater threat to all of us than the Ebola virus. In addition to it being incredibly unlikely that there will be an outbreak in the US, the probability that a person you are interacting with has come into contact with Ebola is practically nonexistent. So be vigilant with your hand-sanitizer, not with the strangers you meet.

* Thanks to Dr. Mark Leary for the idea for this article!  Check out his work about self-presentation and self-compassion here.

**October 6th news reports that Duncan has received an experimental drug, though not the same as Brantly and Writebol.  Sacra apparently got a different drug as well.

  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.
  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1131.
  1. Schaller, M., & Park, J.H. (2011). The behavioral immune system (and why it matters). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 99-103.
  1. Oaten, M., Stevenson, R.J., & Case, T.I. (2009). Disgust as a disease-avoidance mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 303-321.
  1. Navarrete, C.D., & Fessler, D.M.T. (2006). Disease avoidance and ethnocentrism: The effects of disease vulnerability and disgust sensitivity on intergroup attitudes. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 270-282.
  1. Murray, D.R., & Schaller, M. (2012). Threat(s) and conformity deconstructed: Perceived threat of infectious disease and its implications for conformist attitudes and behavior. European Journal of social Psychology, 42, 180-188.
  1. Ackerman, J.M., Becker, D.V., Mortensen, C.R., Sasaki, T., Neuberg, S.L., & Kenrick, D.T. (2009). A pox on the mind: Disjunction of attention and memory in the processing of physical disfigurement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(3), 478-485.
  1. Park, J.H., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2003). Evolved disease-avoidance processes and contemporary anti-social behavior: Prejudicial attitudes and avoidance of people with physical disabilities. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27, 65–87.

Unpacking Ello

Ello's minimalist design

Ello’s minimalist design (Screenshot of Mallory’s first sign-in to Ello)

Yesterday, I saw a status on Facebook about a new invite-only “anti-facebook” social network: Ello. FOMO ensued. What was this minimalist social network? Why had I never heard of it? What was I missing?! I had to know, so I asked the friend for an invite to see what the fuss was about. I signed up and…it’s definitely minimal. Having launched beta-testing this past July, Ello is meant to be ad-free. Which equals no ads, or the fancy interfaces they pay for. But also, no signing onto this social network wondering how they know you’ve been waiting for those sweet high-top Missoni Chuck Taylor’s to go on sale (story of my life). So why has Ello blown up recently? Yesterday, CNET reported that they have 35,000 sign-ups an hour. The social psychologist in me wonders what’s making Ello the new up-and-coming social network, and why. Here are some hypotheses:

  1. There’s an increasing desire for a social network that isn’t manipulative.

We all know what those ads pay for (i.e. cool features and sleek design), and what they cost (i.e. your data and your privacy). With the recent uproar over the Facebook mood contagion experiment, social media users are calling for the ability to network without any “secret algorithms” or tracking cookies following them all over the web. A study by Debatin et al found that users who experienced privacy violations were more likely to change their privacy settings than were users who only heard about privacy violations (1). Almost 700,000 Facebook users timelines were manipulated, which left many users wondering if they were in the sample and feeling distrustful.

  1. People love exclusivity.

The $10,000+ Hermes Birkin Bag is infamous for its waitlist, people were still waiting in line for over two weeks to be among the first to own the new iPhone 6 (now in its 5th generation), and elite New Yorkers duke it out for months over a small number of pre-school spots for their kids, costing as much as a year of college tuition. All of these examples share a common element: Scarcity, a well-known persuasion tactic. A classic study by Worchel et al found that participants valued cookies more highly when they were in a near-empty or rapidly-emptying jar, than when they were in a full or rapidly-filling jar (3). Indeed, scarcity is so powerful it is one of Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion.

  1. Brand authenticity is especially hot right now.

Craft breweries are raking in the big bucks, with some marketers suggesting that it’s due to their masterful upstart narratives. Unlike Bud Lite, when you crack open a 21st Amendment Fireside Chat, you know where the beer was made and you feel like you’re supporting some bearded young man with a fermentation tank and a dream. Creating this kind of subculture may be one way brands achieve authenticity. Research by Leigh et al found that MG car owners derived a sense of authenticity from belonging to the MG subculture (2). Participating in a subversive subculture like Ello may have the added allure of the perceived authenticity of the community in light of anti-establish statements, like their manifesto.

The verdict is still out on whether or not Ello will succeed, but there may be strong social forces at work in its burgeoning popularity.

  1. Debatin, B., Lovejoy, J.P., Horn, A.K., & Hughes, B.N. (2009). Facebook and online privacy: Attitudes, behaviors, and unintended consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(1), 83-108.
  1. Leigh, T.W., Peters, C., & Shelton, J. (2006). The consumer quest for authenticity: The multiplicity of meanings within the MG subculture of consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 34(4), 481-493.
  1. Worchel, S., Lee, J., Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on rating of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.

Should kids avoid the cereal aisle for their health?


Image courtesy of Cornell Food and Brand Lab

Is it just me, or is the cereal aisle much more complicated and sinister compared to when we were kids? Every time I walk down that aisle, my frustration spikes. The choices, so many choices! Chocolate Krave. Cap’n Crunch. Chocolate Cheerios. Frosted Flakes. Even Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory has a cereal now, featuring chocolate bits that you can eat for breakfast. That last part is meant to pull in the kids, and it works. Those kids will nag their parents to buy it who will eventually give in[i] because, oh, they’re frustrated, too. Maybe even more than I am.

I’m not frustrated because of the mere existence of so many options necessarily. Rather, it’s the quality of the options that is concerning. Are any of these cereals actually healthy enough that children should be consuming them regularly? Not usually. A recent study on cereal quality found that cereal brands marketed to children had 56% more sugar, 52% less fiber, and 50% more sodium than cereals marketed to adults.[ii] Most of these cereals also feature spokes-characters, like the silly rabbit from Trix, Cap’n Crunch, or Tony the Tiger, which are familiar to children and increase the appeal of the cereal brand. And let’s not forget that the combined rate of obese and overweight children in this country is still holding strong at 17%.[iii] That’s nearly 13 million kids.

See what I mean about sinister? Now, brand marketing is not inherently negative, but when marketing of unhealthy foods is targeted toward children, then cereal companies like Kellogg and General Mills take a step into the danger zone. Sugary cereals are perhaps even more insidious than other snack foods because they are junk foods disguised as a friendly breakfast.

In-store marketing strategies take it one step further. Cereal companies pay top dollar to get an ideal shelf location that will appeal to children[iv]. In a recent study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, researchers found that cereal brands marketed to children were more likely to be at a child’s eye level and to contain spokes-characters whose gazes angled downward at approximately the height of an average child[v]. In contrast, cereals marketed primarily to adults featuring spokes-characters (think Wheaties) had level gazes. And this seemingly subtle shift in height and gaze is effective. People in the study reported a strong preference for the cereal that featured a spokes-character that made eye contact. By placing their cereals on the middle or bottom shelf, then, companies are ensuring that children will make eye contact with spokes-characters and feel connected and loyal to that brand.

This type of marketing exploits and manipulates children. Cereal companies should be held more accountable. In the past few years and in recent months, especially, there has been a serious push to create stricter regulations for companies that market primarily to children. Based on the findings of Musicus and colleagues, just one of many similar studies, these regulations can’t come soon enough. The issue of obesity is still current. People may be tired of hearing about it, and obesity rates may have stabilized in several states[vi], but that doesn’t mean that it’s gone away.

But even if we take obesity out of the equation, even if we recognize that not all children have the same risk factors for becoming obese, it doesn’t mean that kids should be regularly consuming unhealthy sugary food. Parents want to protect their children in every way they can, and they’re stretched to their limits as is. Cereal companies, and all other food companies for that matter, should be held to stricter regulations. Some marketing standards have been successfulvii, but more needs to be done. Regulations should stretch beyond nutrition and include specific marketing techniques, such as shelf placement and use of spokes-characters. We shouldn’t make the cereal aisle another battleground where parents need to be on the front lines.

Posted by Jen


If you’re interested in this topic and would like to learn more, check out the links below.

Center for Science in the Public Interest: Food Marketing Workgroup

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Healthy Eating Research

Salud Today

Eyes in the aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch looking down at my child? (abstract)

[i],vii A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents — Follow-Up Report. See http://www.ftc.gov/reports/review-food-marketing-children-adolescents-follow-report .

[ii] Harris, J. L., & Graff, S. K. (2012). Protecting young people from junk food advertising: Implications of psychological research for First Amendment law. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 214-222.

[iii] http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/childhood.html

[iv] Wilkie, W.L., Desrochers, D.M., & Gundlach, G.T. (2002). Marketing research and public policy: The case of slotting fees. Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 21, 275-288.

[v] Musicus, A., Tal, A., & Wansink, B. (2014). Eyes in the aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch looking down at my child? Environment and Behavior, 0013916514528793.

[vi] http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-american-obesity-crisis-stabilizing-20140904-story.html.

Can iPhones predict your happiness?


Old-school generation iPhone 4s (Image from flickr.com)

Well, it’s here. The iPhone 6. And suddenly, predictably, everyone with an iPhone 5s or lower feels inadequate. Sales for the iPhone 6 are predicted to be greater than iPhone sales ever before. Someone I went to college with posted on Facebook yesterday, “The iPhone 6. A piece of s!%t compared to the iPhone 7.” He posted the same thing when the iPhone 5 came out a few years back. His post is funny precisely because it captures the sentiment of the technological version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” It says that people are looking to the next cool device already.

The iPhone is not the first device or product marketed to have such a reaction on consumers. Other devices in the tech world and the fashion world, in particular, seem to rely on this notion of being up to date and “en vogue,” if you will.

So, Apple is simply capitalizing on a pattern that seems to be part of the human condition and that other companies also capitalize on to, well, make capital. But what is it that makes people so eager to give up the devices or clothes they’re currently using or wearing, most likely something they were perfectly satisfied with, and clamor to get the newest and latest?

It could be something social psychologists call affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is the ability to predict how we will feel in the future. It’s essentially a forecast for our emotions. And we all know how reliable weather forecasts are once they’re more than a few days out. Not surprisingly, people are notoriously bad at predicting how they’ll feel. It’s true for positive and negative emotions. People generally overestimate how angry or upset and how excited or happy they’ll feel when X happens. Psychologists think that this miscalibration happens for a number of reasons (to learn more, check out Dan Gilbert’s and Tim Wilson’s pages), including one explanation that I’d like to focus on: a happiness baseline.

Everyone you know, yourself included, has a baseline happiness level or a set point [1,2]. Sure, it fluctuates occasionally, and there are certainly days when you’re happier than others, but most of the time our happiness level falls around our own particular set point. While this is good news for people who are feeling crappy, it doesn’t bode well for people who attempt to alter their happiness with products.

In other words, people who think that the latest iPhone will make them happier than they’ve ever been might be right…for a few days or weeks. After that, they’re likely to revert back to their baseline and feel the same way they did with the iPhone 5 or their Android phone or even their Blackberry. Well, maybe not the Blackberry. RIP Blackberry phones. But I digress. Most people fail to notice these patterns about themselves. They don’t learn from their mistakes, so even though purchasing the iPhone 5s only temporarily elevated their happiness from when they had the iPhone 4, these same people will likely be just as eager to obtain their very own iPhone 6 for the very same reasons.

Maybe it’s because people are eternal optimists. Maybe it’s because we’re victims of advertising. Or maybe we don’t know ourselves as much as we think we do. So before you upgrade to the newest and latest, check in with yourself and ask why. Remember, money can’t buy happiness.


Posted by Jen


[1] Diener, E., Suh, E.M., Lucas, R.E., & Smith, H.L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.

[2] Lykken, D. & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7, 186-189.