Good, Bad, and Ugly Nudges for Healthier Shopping

Nudges for healthier behaviors can become rude shoves when practitioners of behavioral psychology cross a line and activate resistance in the people they are trying to influence. The story of behavioral scientists working with a supermarket chain to nudge people to healthier choices offers some good insights into fostering better choices. But it also elicits resistance from people who find some of it manipulative and insulting.

Working with Lowe’s supermarkets and the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, two behavioral scientists from New Mexico State University have succeeded in driving up produce sales by as much as 90% for participants in the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. Michael Kelly, a senior program manager at the foundation, told the New York Times:

They’re moving preference from one side of the store to the other, which is wonderful. People still stay on their budgets, get more nutrients and less of the processed — well, let’s just say bad — stuff.

Michael Lowe, a Drexel University psychology professor who was not involved in the project and is unrelated to the supermarket, offered up comments that might have been intended as helpful, but they had a totally unhelpful effect:

If you put up some cues that remind people of their weight or healthy eating, without hitting them over the head, they will go and choose healthier items. The mirror might do that, but the question will be, “What kind of memory association will their body elicit?” And that is hard to know beforehand. For those who are overweight, it might elicit the sense of, “Oh, I need to lose weight.” Or, “I don’t like to see myself because I’m so big,” which might lead to choosing healthier food.

This guy should stop trying to help.

Reacting in Slate to Professor Lowe’s words, L.V. Anderson offered up withering criticism of this whole project:

This is the first of many reasons that putting mirrors in shopping carts is a terrible idea: It’s intended to make people feel bad about their appearance. It’s not enough, I guess, for fat people face shame and stigma whenever they open a magazine, turn on a TV, or walk outside — now they need to be shamed at the grocery store, too. For some reason I’m skeptical that creating a Pavlovian association between buying produce and feeling self-loathing is the best way to encourage people to get excited about healthy eating.

This sort of reaction to well-intended interventions serves as an illustration about obesity as a complex adaptive system. When people start feeling manipulated, psychological reactance comes into play. People instinctively resent and resist a perceived loss of freedom, however trivial it might be. Witness Mayor Bloomberg’s big soda ban going down in flames.

Only a hair’s breadth of difference separates a nudge from a shove.

Click here to read more in the New York Times, click here to read more in Slate, and click here to read more about psychological reactance to health promotion.

Grocery Shopping, photograph © Anna Lina Weiß / flickr

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