So many healthy-eating tricks revolve around what behavioral experts call “designing for laziness,” or altering your environment with the knowledge that you’ll almost always choose whatever requires the least amount of effort. Store the junk food somewhere that’s harder to reach, plan your meals well ahead of when you’ll actually eat them, don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry: It’s all about avoiding situations where you’ll actually have to exercise willpower, and instead making the healthier choice the easiest one.
And as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, a forthcoming study in the Journal of Marketing Research puts a new spin on the whole dynamic: Over a series of five experiments, the authors found that people eat more unhealthy food when someone else serves it to them, and less when they serve themselves.
In one experiment, for example, volunteers arriving at a lab for an unrelated study were greeted with a table full of food. In some cases, the snack on offer was dried fruit, while in others it was Reese’s Pieces. When the candy was pre-portioned out into individual cups, the researchers found, around a third of participants took some; when they had to scoop their own candy out of a bowl, though, none did. When dried fruit was on the table, though, the serving style didn’t make much difference.
The reason for the discrepancy, the researchers argue, is that when it comes to things people know they probably shouldn’t be having, being served is a way to pass off the guilt: “We suggest that this behavior occurs because being less physically involved in serving one’s food allows participants to reject responsibility for unhealthy eating,” they wrote, “and thus to feel better about themselves following indulgent consumption.” Or, as author Linda Hagen, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California, told the Journal, “If they’re served by someone else, they can outsource responsibility to someone else.” This is one case, in other words, where designing for laziness falls short: the healthier path, unfortunately, has to be the one that demands just a little more effort.