To eat or not to eat: following the subtly communicated norm

  • S. Raghoebar
  • E. van Kleef
  • E. de Vet


Background: Understanding which elements of food environments make us more likely to eat, can help policymakers in developing interventions to improve eating habits. It is shown that decreasing accessibility (e.g. by greater distance) or salience of foods lowers consumption. We hypothesize that this effect also occurs with more subtle food serving cues that imply a consumption norm. Method: In a between-subjects experiment, food intake of participants was unobtrusively examined during a bogus coffee taste task. Participants in the discouraging condition (N=50) were presented a bowl of peppernuts covered by plastic wrap, subtly communicating that you are not supposed to take. Participants in the encouraging condition (N=52) were presented the same bowl, but the experimenter removed the plastic wrap before leaving the room, subtly communicating that you are free to take. Participants in the control condition (N=49) were presented the bowl without plastic wrap. Post-test, participants indicated perceptions of norms, effort, salience and liking. Findings: Results show a significantly lower likelihood of intake (P<.001) and a marginally, significantly lower intake (P=.060) in the discouraging condition compared to the other conditions. No effect of condition on liking was observed. Participants in the discouraging condition indicated that they felt less free and required more effort to take, and a lower salience of the peppernuts, compared to participants in other conditions (all P’s < .01). Discussion: Results indicate that even subtly communicated normative messages affect eating, by changing perceptions of effort and salience. These normative messages could strategically be used to stimulate healthy eating.
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