Food Choices: A Feast for the Eyes
The visual appeal of a dish is decisive
Every new food scandal strengthens the case for empowered consumers capable of making responsible and informed decisions. But how do we make food choices? Do we carefully weigh up a product’s ingredients, price, and appearance? Researchers lead by the the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin addressed these questions and found that we like to make things as easy as possible for ourselves. A finding that should be taken into account in the design of food labels.
What and how much information do we take into account when deciding what to eat? Findings from a study on decision behavior in a company canteen indicate that consumers by no means consult all of the information available. Rather, their decisions were based primarily on the dishes’ appearance, name, and price. Far less attention was paid to information on nutritional content, such as calories, fat, carbohydrates, and salt.
“We were interested in how people deal with complex information. Our finding that they use simple decision strategies to make food choices is consistent with recent results from decision research,” says Michael Schulte-Mecklenbeck, lead author of the study and researcher in the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.
According to Schulte-Mecklenbeck, people apply simple decision strategies in order to be able to cope better with the complexity of everyday life. In so doing, they draw on their previous experience of food choices and knowledge of their personal preferences.
In the study, 56 patrons of a company canteen participated in an experiment in which they were asked to choose between dishes presented on a computer screen. They were provided with pictures of each dish along with its price, name, and nutritional information. By tracking the decision processes on the computer, the researchers were able to pinpoint exactly what was important to the participants. The data were then analyzed for evidence of various decision strategies, such as whether participants took all of the information available into consideration, or just some of it. The findings are clear: About three quarters of participants used simple decision strategies—or heuristics—in their food choices.
The study also has practical implications for the design of food labels. “Our finding that consumers evidently base their choices on a fraction of the information provided doesn’t necessarily diminish the value of food labels,” says Michael Schulte-Mecklenbeck. Beyond the legally required—but often lengthy—lists of ingredients, food labels should specifically highlight the most important pieces of information, such as calories or the proportion of the recommended daily intake of individual nutrients.
The researchers are currently investigating whether and to what extent simplified food label design can foster healthier food choices.
Schulte-Mecklenbeck, M., Sohn, M., De Bellis, E., Martin, N., & Hertwig, R. (2013). A lack of appetite for information and computation. Simple heuristics in food choice. Appetite, 71, 242–251. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.08.008