How food choices are presented may have more influence on consumers than they realize, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The research is entitled “Choosing Your Future: Temporal Distance and the Balance between Self-Control and Indulgence” and its author, Juliano Laran of the University of Miami, claims the findings could have an important role in the marketing of different kinds of products.

Laran tested reactions to healthy and indulgent messages in four different experiments, which focused on either healthy eating or saving money. He found that consumers’ decisions for the here-and-now reflected the dominant message at the time. On the other hand, when consumers are surrounded by messages about self-control when they are shopping, their decisions for the future tend to move toward indulgence, and vice versa – when they are surrounded by messages about indulgence, their decisions for the future tend to reflect greater self-control.

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In one of the experiments, participants were told they were going to be involved in a study looking at the cognitive processes involved in unscrambling sentences. The sentences included words that were either neutral, or associated with health and self-control, such as work out, fat, weight, fit, slim, shape, healthy, diet, nutrition, and exercises.

They were then asked, supposedly separately from the experiment, to give their opinion on the operations of the behavioral lab. This included making one choice of snack to eat then, and one to eat when the experimental session was over in a year’s time. They were given a list of eight healthy snacks and eight tasty but unhealthy snacks to choose from. Those that had unscrambled sentences involving the ‘self-control’ words were much more likely to choose healthy snacks for the present, yet unhealthy snacks for a years’ time.

“Marketers may be able to use the operations of these processes to their advantage,” Laran wrote. “Making a certain type of information currently active and then framing a decision as having consequences for the present or for the future may have a powerful influence on behavior.”

As an example, he wrote that a food retailer may use strong messaging about saving money, while promoting purchases to be made in advance, such as for an anniversary or child’s birthday. This could lead to a store attracting a lot more customers but lead them to spend more money on future events.

Source: Journal of Consumer Research. Published online ahead of print. “Choosing Your Future: Temporal Distance and the Balance between Self-Control and Indulgence” Author: Juliano Laran

 Have a healthy and fit day!