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Does Nudging Towards Healthier Options Work? A matter of Hunger

Relevant topics Archive, Conversion

  • Neuromarketing Principle:
    Displaying healthy food options to the left increases our preference for them, especially when we are hungry
  • Application:
    This nudge can be effectively applied in contexts where people purchase food for instant consumption, such as restaurants and convenience stores
  • In 2016, we shared an interesting study on how food arrangement can be used to nudge us towards healthier choices: How To Make People Prefer A Dry Salad Over A Tasty Cheeseburger.

    The study demonstrated that choice for healthy foods can be increased by simply displaying them on the left side of their lesser healthy counterparts. For example, displaying the salads on the left page of a restaurant menu, and the burgers on the right page, will lead significantly more patrons to order the former. In similar vein, supermarkets whose shelfs display healthier options to the left side will bear a similar positive influence on our health.

    Will a few design tricks put a stop to the epidemic of obesity? Likely not – but as goes for many small adjustments in our daily lives: they compound and make a substantial difference in the long run. Now, a new study has been published that further explores under what circumstances the healthy left effect is likely to arise.

    Why your brain expects healthy options to be placed on the left

    Where does this left-side bias come from? As it turns out, our brain likes to intuitively place objects and concepts on a horizontal left to right scale. We do this with many things: ranging from tangible properties such as size (small goes to the left, large to the right) all the way to complex abstractions such as one’s political affiliations.

    Similarly, our brain appears to connect ‘healthy’ to the left. This falls in line with similar findings on the physical associations, in particular ‘lightness’, which is allocated to the left both in terms of colors (lighter colors to the left or darker ones) and light weight (lighter objects to the left of heavier ones). This explains why healthy options, which can be interpreted as light in a both literal and figurative sense, end up in the same corner of our mind.

    Does the healthy left effect always work?

    A matter of hunger Recently, a new team of scientists set out to further dissect the healthy left effect. They crafted various restaurant menus, again alternating the placement of healthy and unhealthy options. During the experiment, respondents were simply asked to order the food of their preference.

    However, this time, the healthy left nudge showed only a marginally significant effect. It shined through, but wasn’t as crystal clear as in the previous study.

    What happened? After more closely examining the data, the researchers discovered one key variable that caused the healthy left effect to arise: hunger. Restaurant visitors that were hungry and ordered the food for instant consumption were particularly susceptible to the effect of left-sided placement, swaying them towards healthier alternatives then they otherwise would have chosen.

    Alternatively, patrons that ordered the food for later consumption were not influenced by the menu design. However, this particular group of people were already more likely to order healthy options, whereas the hungry patrons are more attracted to unhealthy foods by default.

    The nudge shows its strongest effects at our weakest moments

    This study illustrates an interesting principle of nudging: the effects of a nudge are not universally shared, but dependent upon the mindset and characteristics of the individuals who are being nudged. This particularly nudge – influencing choice by food arrangement – appears to only affect those who are most susceptible to the allure of unhealthy foods. This is actually a promising result, because there is a lot less to be gained from a health-focused nudge that would only affect those who wear Fitbits, never miss their 10,000 daily steps and religiously count their calories.

  • Does Nudging Towards Healthier Options Work? A matter of Hunger
  • Reference:

    Manippa, V., Brancucci, A., Rivolta, D., & Tommasi, L. (2022). I’ll have this salad on the left, and I’ll have it now! The influence of hunger on healthy-left nudge. Food Quality and Preference, 104749.


    Further Reading

    • A Label A Day Keeps The Doctor Away: Increasing Healthy Eating Via Innovative Packaging Information Labels

      A Label A Day Keeps The Doctor Away: Increasing Healthy Eating Via Innovative Packaging Information Labels

      You may sometimes purposely forgo reading the front-of-package (FOP) labels on the packaging of food goods. The main reason could be to ignore the unhealthiness of the chosen option and let your tastebuds revel in its sugary glory. Other reasons include the difficulty to read and the misleading nature of the labels, leaving the consumer in a state of confusion. If the label is hard to understand, you won’t want to read it and you won’t make a healthy decision.

      In this paper, the researchers focus on sugar content and evaluate a novel FOP label’s effectiveness on participants’ preference for the healthier option when presented with various food choices. This was achieved by proposing categories in terms of their simplicity: simple options with few ingredients (smoothies), mid-complexity options with a shortlist of ingredients (yoghurts), and complex options with many ingredients (ready meals). Along with increasing complexity, the sugar content also increases; the smoothie has less sugar than the yoghurt, which has less sugar than the ready meal.

      These food options were proposed with the traffic light system or the sugar-spoon label, representing the number of teaspoons of sugar contained in the product. By comparing a standard traffic-light label system versus their invented sugar-spoon label, the researchers found that the participants’ choices were healthier when the product presented was of simple composition (vs complex composition) and adopted their sugar-spoon label (vs the traffic light label).

      The study concluded that the sugar-spoon label is more effective at favoring the choice of low-sugar content food goods than the regular traffic light label.

      What cognitive process allows for this healthier decision? Find out below.

    • Online Food Photos that Make Your Mouth Water: How Color-Saturated Food Images can Boost Sales

      Online Food Photos that Make Your Mouth Water: How Color-Saturated Food Images can Boost Sales

      We've probably all been there before. We’re scrolling through our Instagram feed, just to stop and stare at a burger from a local restaurant that looks so good we instantly feel hungry. Maybe we can restrain at first, but a few days later we miraculously find ourselves craving a burger while not even thinking about that post anymore, and we are already planning on going there with a friend. 

      What is it that one photo on Instagram can unconsciously persuade us to go to a food outlet or order something online, while we have no difficulties neglecting another photo? 

      Working part time as a hospitality marketeer, I struggled with that question a lot of times. How can I make these photos so attractive that it gets people in the door? 

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