"Nudging" people to make healthier choices is a nice way of saying food shaming & manipulation.
The latest news in the worlds of food shaming and behavior modification comes to us from Chicago, where a health psychologist has created vending machines that make you wait for some snacks but not for others.
Guess which snacks have the wait time? If you guessed the ones that researchers decided were unhealthy, you’re a winner!
The story goes that Brad Appelhans noticed that his busy colleagues would rather open a door by hand than use the automatic door-opening button. He surmised that the three-second delay between button pushing and the door actually opening was a deterrent.
It might have been that those buttons are usually marked with a handicap access symbol and perhaps able-bodied folks didn't feel like using an accommodation that they didn’t really need, but I digress.
Appelhans decided to try that approach on vending machines. He programmed a 25-second delay between selection and dispensation of unhealthy snacks, but no delay on healthier snacks. The hypothesis being that since people tend to be regular users of vending machines, the delay would condition them to avoid certain snacks that take too long to be dispensed and instead choose the snacks with no delay.
The results show no decrease in use of vending machines but a slight increase of 3-5% in healthy snacks chosen. Evidently this is very good news because it doesn’t decrease vending machine revenue while still manipulating customers into buying scientist-approved snacks.
I find this whole experiment annoying.
Trying to manipulate people into making different food choices using operant conditioning — especially if they did it without their consent — is screwed up. Just let people eat their food without turning a quick snack break into a social science experiment.
If you want people to make more thoughtful food choices in the workplace, change the culture to include more break time, more access to different kinds of food, and pleasant places to sit down for a moment to eat it. A break room with a fruit bowl and supervisors who don’t object to employees who make use of both is a healthier choice all around than vending machines and eating snacks hastily behind a desk.