Food & HealthScience

What You See May Affect What You Eat

June 27, 2016   |   Annie Neimand

You spend hours picking the best words and crafting the perfect message to move your audience to action.

However, only thinking about words is short-sighted. Why limit yourself to just words, when you can use surroundings and visuals too? That’s like coloring a picture with just one color, and wouldn’t that be the most boring picture ever? Research suggests that you can also creatively and strategically use psychology, visuals and people’s everyday surroundings to achieve your goals.

This is particularly true when it comes to getting people to eat and drink less to curb obesity. From children to teens to adults, visual cues within their everyday lives can be effective for changing unhealthy behavior.

For example, in one study Public Health Scholar and White House Fellow Sara Bleich, and her colleagues, wanted to know if sharing easily understandable signs that explained simply the exercise required to burn off calories from soda in corner stores, frequented by black adolescent teens, could lower their purchasing behavior. They focused on black teens because, on average, they drink larger amounts of sugary beverages, and are at higher risk for obesity.

They put up various types of “Did you know?” signs around Baltimore City. These brightly colored 8.5-by-11-inch signs, placed in prominent locations on each beverage case in each corner store, asked:

Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 250 calories?

Did you know that a bottle of soda or fruit juice has about 16 teaspoons of sugar?

Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?

Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 5 miles of walking?

They collected data on over 4,500 purchases and found that for up to 6 weeks after the signs were removed from the store, teens purchased less sugar-sweetened beverages than before the study had began.

The most effective signs equated calories with the number of miles required to walk off the calories in a bottle.

This research suggests that you can speak to the inner couch potato in your audience and show them how much more exercise they would have to do just for one bottle of soda.

In addition to changing how people think about the calories in food, other studies suggest that understandable signs can be used to train children how to make healthy food choices.

For example, in one study, psychologists Gregory Privitera and his colleagues found that when food is labeled with emoticons — a happy face to depict healthy food and a sad face for less healthy food — children are more likely to make healthier food choices. 

In their study, 75 children, pre-k to 5th grade, were given a pretest to assess how much they related emoticons with food. In the pretest, children were shown either a picture of healthy food with a happy face emoticon or a picture of unhealthy food with a sad face emoticon. The kids were asked to circle the healthy food to assess if they associated emoticons with healthy and unhealthy food. In this first test no grade level scored 100%. Bummer.

The children were then given a two-hour health lesson that taught the kids that the happy face emoticon is linked to food that is “good for your body” and the sad face emoticon is linked to food that is “not as good for your body.” After the lesson, the kids took the test again and they all scored 100%. Hooray!

Following this little experiment, the children were faced with the real life dilemma of selecting new snacks to include in the school cafeteria.  The children had to select from a dozen round food containers, but could not see what is inside. However, all the containers were labeled with emoticons. Importantly, the labels on the containers mimicked labeling that could be found on standard food packaging including information on taste, branding and popularity.

The researchers found that “a significant proportion of children used the emoticons to make food choices and that their choices were specifically for healthy foods.”

Interestingly, they also found that “competing information” did not impact the effectiveness of using emoticons.

The study suggests that using emoticons, or what the researchers call “emolabeling” (throw that down in your next strategy meeting), can be useful for getting kids to make healthier food choices.

Other factors influencing what and how much people eat are their habits and routines. Unfortunately, getting people to make healthier choices, especially when unhealthy choices are habitual, is a daunting task. People do not like to be told what they are doing is wrong or bad, and they certainly are going to plug their ears if you tell them to stop eating their favorite unhealthy snacks. So sometimes the easier thing to do is just change their options.

One study, conducted by food marketing and psychology scholar Brian Wansink, and his colleagues, involved 177 moviegoers and a lot of popcorn. They were interested in understanding irrational eating behavior and overeating. In this experiment, unsuspecting movie goers were each given a soft drink and a free bag of popcorn.

All of the moviegoers were given a free soft drink and popcorn, but the specifics of this free snack varied. Some moviegoers received fresh popcorn and others were given stale, gross, 14-day-old popcorn. The size of the bag varied, too, with some participants receiving their popcorn in a medium size bag and others in a large bag. Both bags were large enough that no single movie-goer would be able to finish it.

The researchers wanted to know if people with bigger bags would eat more popcorn than those who received smaller bags and whether the freshness of the popcorn had an impact.

The difference in what the moviegoers ate was insane. Moviegoers who were given fresh popcorn ate 45.3% more popcorn when it was given to them in large containers. The bag size was so powerful that even when the popcorn was stale, people given the large bags still ate 33.6% more popcorn than those who got smaller bags.

Interestingly, in a survey taken after the film, the moviegoers who were given the bigger bags and ate more popcorn described the popcorn as “stale,” “soggy,” or “terrible.”

This suggests that these people weren’t eating for pleasure or because they were hungry. They were mindlessly eating bad popcorn that they didn’t like just because their bag was bigger.

What does this study mean for communications? If, let’s say, you want to address obesity, or curb overeating, asking people to eat less may not be the best strategy. Rather, in this case, sometimes, you just need to give people a smaller bag of popcorn, or change their situation.

What else can communicators do to help people make healthier choices?  Research suggests that playing with the audience’s eye can also work.

In one study, marketing scholar Brennan Davis and his colleagues tested whether changing  participants’ perception of the size of food can have an impact how many calories they consume.  They designed  an experiment involving 219 college students, 4 pizza pies (free!) and 4 differently sized round tables.

Participants either saw a pizza pie cut into 16 smaller slices or 8 larger pieces. The pizzas were presented either on a smaller table or a large table to play with perception of the size of the pizza. They found that participants tended to eat more of the smaller slices, but consumed fewer calories because they thought they were eating more.  Even when they tried to make the smaller slices seem bigger by putting them on a relatively bigger table, the students ate fewer calories.

“This happened because—compared to people choosing from small tables— attentional scope shifted away from the smallness of the pizza slices and towards the largeness of the table on which it was placed resulting in people perceiving the smaller pizza slices as closer to regular in size,” the researchers explain.

Collectively all this science suggests that we should use visual cues in our audience’s everyday lives to help them change their unhealthy behavior. Sometimes people just don’t want to change, but making changes for them – whether that’s the table the food is presented on, the size of the bag the treats come in or the labeling on their favorite snack– can be effective for building a healthier society.

Annie Neimand
Annie Neimand is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology, Criminology & Law at the University of Florida, and Research Director and Executive Editor for frank.