Sneaky Food Experiments, Part II: Do You Want Fries With That?

Will offering people the option of a salad or vegetables reduce French fry consumption? It's likely that it may have a small impact. In part, the power of suggestion is pretty powerful.
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Did you hear that McDonalds is going to make a big change soon? They intend to stop asking, "Do you want fries with that?" and start saying, "Do you want fries, a salad, fruit, or a vegetable with that?" Will this statement make a monumental difference in how people order?

Research on how people make choices suggests that this slight shift in words might have a significant impact. "Choice architects," people who guide consumer's decision-making choices, have known for a long time that how you present choices (the order and manner) can nudge people toward a certain decision. An example of a nudge study was done with placement of snacks near a check-out counter. When 75 percent of the assortment consisted of healthy snacks, the sales of healthy snacks was higher than usual.

We can all relate to the French fry example and how it "nudges" us. Who hasn't said reflexively, "Sure, I'll have fries with that," in response to the question. Will you say "yes" to salad if it is simply offered?"

The McDonalds news prompted another one of my covert food experiments (see my last sneaky food experiment on my friends in France). This time it was a family gathering. Again, keep in mind this is just for fun and to test out research outside of a lab room.

Setting: Family gathering. The main meal was a mix of Italian food -- pasta, bread, green beans, etc. The food was on a table in a separate room from the dining room table.

Here is the set up: I decided to offer two different prompts. While people were in the living room waiting and taking a breather for dessert or cleaning up dishes, I came in to "take dessert orders."


1) "Would you like a brownie and ice cream?"
2) "Would you like a brownie and ice cream or fruit?" (a mix of fruit, mostly strawberries in a small glass bowl).

Granted this wasn't French fries, but it was still pairing up a healthy vs. unhealthier option. One half of the room got one prompt 1 and the other prompt 2.

Hypothesis: The type of offer would impact what they chose. Note that everyone had seen both the brownies and the fruit cups.

Subjects: Unsuspecting family members age 3-75

Results: For those who got the prompt brownie and ice cream, almost everyone took me up on this offer. Except one person who didn't want anything and another person who wanted to nix the ice cream. And another that took the brownie but complained that there wasn't a different option (ah, we can't make everyone happy!).

For those who were offered brownie and fruit, 35 percent took fruit or fruit and the brownie. Hence, it went from 90 percent who took the brownie to 65 percent. Simply offering fruit, at least to this group, seemed to actually did make a difference. People took me up on the offer!

Discussion: So, will offering people the option of a salad or vegetables reduce French fry consumption? It's likely that it may have a small impact. In part, the power of suggestion is pretty powerful. I talk a lot about why we make the food decisions we do in my new book, EatQ. Stay tuned for more sneaky food experiments in which I pair scientific research with fun experimenting on real people outside of the lab. Read more about how I help people beat out these sneaky traps and nudge themselves into healthier options in EatQ.

Dr. Susan Albers is a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of six books on mindful eating including Eat.Q: Unlock the Weight Loss Power of Emotional Intelligence. She has been quoted in the New York Times, Self, O Magazine, Shape, Fitness and on the Dr. Oz show.

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