Being a devil: Influencing your buyer’s willpower

We are really good at tricking ourselves into acts of indulgence.

Take a study by Chandon and Wansink (2007) for instance that found that when people visit a “healthy” restaurant they tend to underestimate the calories they are consuming. In effect, the restaurant’s healthy “halo effect” mucks with our ability to assess our behaviour.

Similarly, a study by Wilcox, Vallen, Block and Fitzsimmons (2009) found that the mere presence of healthy items increased the likelihood of an indulgent item being selected. In other words, we trick ourselves into thinking we have done the right thing by our mental calorie account through merely considering the healthy item and, as a reward, select the indulgence. McDonald’s seem to be playing on this through their healthier options menu, luring us with salads and wraps but then bombarding us with burgers and fries once there.

As the researchers write:

“Results demonstrate that individuals are, ironically, more likely to make indulgent food choices when a healthy item is available compared to when it is not available… Presence vicariously fulfils nutrition related goals and provides consumers with license to indulge.”

What do these studies mean? Context is crucial and can lower our rational defences. As a business, you can and should influence that context.

Business implications

For businesses there are some opportunities to consider:

  • If you are marketing healthy options, you need to contextualise your product. Presenting salads amongst pies and sausage rolls may not be as successful as segmenting healthy and less healthy choices.
  • If you are marketing indulgent options, consider the role healthy products can play in stimulating choices in your favour. Desserts tucked in amongst fruit and vegetables might be worth pursuing.

And for businesses not involved in food, the lesson of context still holds. Do they see your product as an indulgence or a necessity? Help them feel like they’ve earned a reward to promote purchase of indulgences, and if your product is more utilitarian in nature, try keeping it clear of distracting “goodies”.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at, [email protected] or by following on Twitter @peoplepatterns. Bri’s book, “22 Minutes to a Better Business”, about how behavioural economics can help you tackle everyday business issues, is available through the Blurb bookstore.



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