Fast-food chains and vending machines offer more healthful food items than ever these days, and sales are up. Sales of burgers, fries and assorted junk food, that is.
Gavan Fitzsimons may have figured out why. The Duke professor and his team concluded that simply seeing a salad on the menu empowers some consumers to select less healthy foods.
The scientists dubbed the phenomenon, “vicarious goal fulfillment.”
It seems that people can convince themselves a nutrition goal has been achieved by taking some small action, like considering a salad, without actually ordering it.
Fitzsimons’ team used a pre-test to identify people with particularly high levels of self-control regarding food choices. On the pre-test, they had consistently avoided French fries, the least healthy item on a test menu.
The team then asked subjects to select a food item from one of 2 pictorial menus. One menu offered up strictly junk: fries, chicken nuggets, and a baked potato with the fixins. The other menu had the same 3 items and a side salad.
Subjects shown the latter menu rarely chose the salad and went for the fries—the least healthy menu option—more frequently than those shown the salad-less menu.
The fascinating work appears in the Journal of Consumer Research.
“The presence of a salad on the menu has a liberating effect on people who value healthy choices,” Fitzsimons explained to BurrillReport.
“Simply seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the healthy option fulfills their need to make healthy choices, freeing (them) to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice.”
The team concluded that schools and other establishments that are serious about promoting healthy behaviors better start deleting junk food from the menu altogether.