image courtesy of Neuroscience Marketing .
One lists burgers and fries. Some people add fries to the order, some don’t.
The other menu has the same burgers, same fries, and also offers a side salad. Figure that some of the burger-only folks will order the salad. Some of the burger-with-fries will stick with fries and some will switch to a salad. Up by a few salads, down by a few fries.
Funny thing is, it doesn’t work like that. While a few salads get added to the burger orders, french fry orders actually increase– in fact three times as many diners will go for the fries when a salad is added to the menu.
Four teams of neuroscientists at four research universities conducted studies that confirmed these results. Apparently the mere presence of healthy options encourages us to make unhealthy choices. The findings were the same, whether it was Oreos or fried chicken, salad or veggie burgers.
The researchers call this ‘vicarious goal fulfillment.’ It happens when a person feels that a goal has been met if they have taken even a teeny, tiny step towards it– like joining a gym you never get to, or buying an important book that sits on the shelf. In this case, the fleeting thought of Hmm, I could have a salad, is enough to satisfy dietary goals.
It’s a stretch, but there is a certain logic working when a diner feels virtuous for considering a salad. But why then order the french fries? The researchers speculated that the virtue conferred by the salad gave diners license to lower their guard. And the more self-disciplined an individual is, the more powerful the what-the-hell effect.
News to you? You can bet it’s not to the fast food industry.
The findings of the studies cited have been published as Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision and can be found in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Consumer Research.