How to navigate a tempting food environment: from explicit directions to implicit cues

Project: Staff

Project Details


The rich availability of unhealthy food in the environment is often held responsible for the current obesity epidemic. However, what makes food availability detrimental to diet and weight is unclear. The dominant view is that available unhealthy foods lead to overeating because foods are salient and easy to obtain. Current practice strongly builds on that idea by restricting access to these foods. Yet, evidence for this notion is weak. I propose a novel view on food availability, namely that it is not just salience or effort that makes us mindlessly eat whatever is within reach, but also the normative messages that are implicitly conveyed by and in connection with available food. For instance, placement of unhealthy foods in close vicinity may be interpreted in terms of effort or salience, but they may also implicitly convey the message that eating them is appropriate. I propose that arrangements in the food environment communicate implicit messages about what is considered acceptable or even normal. Such ‘accidental’ normative cues surrounding foods may inadvertently spur unhealthy eating mindlessly. Yet, awareness and understanding of implicit normative cues can help to avoid unhealthy prompts and to develop solutions for eating healthier. Hence, the proposal will improve understanding of how the food environment affects eating, but will also contribute to the development of evidence-based intervention strategies. Methods from psychology, behavioural economics and communication science will be used to explain and address this major problem in nutrition, epidemiology and public health. Lab and field experiments combined with innovative technologies for observation in naturalistic settings will investigate 1) the novel hypothesis that implicit normative cues influence eating over and above salience and effort, 2) the psychological processes driving these effects, and 3) when and for whom communications via implicit normative cues are advantageous compared to more traditional normative messages.
Effective start/end date1/10/161/10/21