Leveraging the Happy Meal Effect: Substituting Food with Modest Non-Food Incentives Decreases Portion Size Choice
Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Forthcoming
37 Pages Posted: 2 Jul 2015
Date Written: June 30, 2015
Despite much effort to decrease food intake by altering portion sizes, “super-sized” meals are the preferred choice of many. This research investigated the extent to which individuals can be subtly incentivized to choose smaller portion sizes. Three randomized experiments (two in the lab and one in the field) established that individuals’ choice of full-sized food portions is reduced when they are given the opportunity to choose a half-sized version with a modest non-food incentive. This substitution effect was robust across different non-food incentives, foods, populations, and time. Experiment 1 established the effect with children, using inexpensive headphones as non-food incentives. Experiment 2 — a longitudinal study across multiple days — generalized this effect with adults, using the mere chance to win either gift cards or frequent flyer miles as non-food incentives. Experiment 3 demonstrated the effect among actual restaurant customers who had originally planned to eat a full-sized portion, using the mere chance to win small amounts of money. Our investigation broadens the psychology of food portion choice from perceptual and social factors to motivational determinants.
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