The mere act of reaching for food can make us consume more

The mere act of reaching for food can make us consume more

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Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Research by Rhonda Hadi, Associate Professor of Marketing at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, shows that actively taking food, as opposed to being served it, can generate a false sense of choice and lead us to consume more.

In a new paper ‘I take therefore I choose?’ Hadi and co-author Lauren Block demonstrate that the simple physical act of reaching for and taking an object makes us feel as though we are choosing that object. Taking things has become associated in our thinking with choice – even if in fact no choice exists and there is only one sort of food available. The authors argue that this illusion of choice can have significant implications for our evaluation and consumption of food.

Previous research has shown how factors such as cutlery weight, plate colour, glassware shape and background lighting can affect the way we perceive food and how much we consume. Based on two empirical studies, the new paper adds insight on the effect of active versus passive acquisition of food – the difference it makes if we take the food ourselves rather than being handed or served it.

Hadi explained: ‘In general we tend to take the things we choose for ourselves and are often given things we do not choose. Thinking we have chosen the item ourselves, as a result of the act of taking it, makes us feel positive towards the food and prompts us to consume more, even when no real choice of alternatives exists. ‘

The research could have public health implications given the rising incidence of obesity. It could be beneficial to encourage children to serve themselves healthy foods from a salad bar at school cafeterias, for example, and to remove self-service of less healthy foods.

‘Our research suggests that the mere act of letting children take the healthy foods themselves will encourage them to feel more positively towards this food and potentially to consume more of it’ explained Hadi.

The findings could also be of interest to restaurants and other food retailers. Allowing customers to serve themselves from a buffet, for instance, will encourage them to consume more products overall as consumers would be likely to rate the food more highly.

‘What is interesting about this research are the implications for businesses and health. Not only could it help restaurants find ways to increase patron satisfaction, but it could also raise awareness of easy practical steps we could take to help tackle obesity’ said Hadi.

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