You would think that the best way to get people to make healthy choices at a restaurant would be to offer them appealing, nutritionally sound choices. This is consistent with the idea of environmental guardrails: Remove barriers to good behavior, add enablers to make it easier, and success will ensue. However, research shows that attempts to offer healthy options may backfire, leading people to indulge instead of abstain.
The research study in question varied menu options so that some people could choose a side salad instead of fries or a baked potato, while others were not. When the salad was on offer, people were more likely to go for the fries than when it was not. According to one article:
The study results showed that the mere presence of a healthy item vicariously fulfills health-related eating goals, drives attention to the least-healthy choice, and provides people with license to indulge in tempting foods. They also demonstrated that these effects were more pronounced in people with relatively high levels of self-control.
According to this explanation, people who see a healthy option are able to justify choosing something indulgent for a few reasons. First, they may figure that they have opportunities in the future to make a good choice, so it’s ok to have something unhealthy now. Second, the presence of a healthy item makes the unhealthy one look that much more appealing (as if French fries need any help looking delicious).
The variety of options on a menu is only one factor influencing what people choose. Item descriptions, images, prices, and locations (if they are in a buffet) all also play a role in what people select, not to mention people’s goals, moods, and appetites. That said, it is interesting to see that environmental designs intended to nudge behavior in one direction may move it in the opposite way. It suggests that whenever possible, it’s important to measure the outcome of a change so that we can be sure it’s having the intended effect, and calibrate if not.
Wilcox, K., Vallen, B., Block, L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2009). Vicarious goal fulfillment: When the mere presence of a healthy option leads to an ironically indulgent decision. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(3), 380-393.