Would A Shopping Cart Mirror Showing Your Fat Face Make You Buy More Vegetables?

Could you look yourself in the eye, then load your grocery cart up with root beer and ice cream bars? No, literally. Stakeholders ranging from from physicians to grocers want Americans to buy (and eat) more fresh produce and less junk food, but how can they do that without a complete overhaul of the food system? With gentle nudges.

Maybe the nudge mentioned in the title of this post isn’t so gentle. Cornell University researchers came up with the idea, but haven’t fully implemented it yet. The theory behind it is that people might glimpse themselves in the mirror, suddenly remember that they’re fatter than they would like to be, and make healthier food choices. This theory remains unproven, but one weight control researcher who is not part of the project spoke to the New York Times in praise of it. “For those who are overweight, it might elicit the sense of, ‘Oh, I need to lose weight’,” he speculates. “Or, ‘I don’t like to see myself because I’m so big,’ which might lead to choosing healthier food.” Or covering up that mirror with a great big frozen pizza box. One of those.

Other nudges try to get more fresh foods in carts without making anyone feel bad about themselves. It’s tricky. One method that has worked is a simple social norms campaign. When researchers put a sign in every cart spelling out how many pieces of produce other customers usually buy on each shopping trip and what types are the most popular, produce sales surged. A series of green arrows on the floor pointing to the produce section? That encouraged shoppers to go there, browse, and buy more produce. Another method marked off the front half of shopping carts as designated for fresh fruits and vegetables.

The problem is that nudging people means not metaphorically hitting them over the head. When researchers combined two strategies–say, putting a social-norms placard in each cart as well as marking the path to the produce section on the floor–customers seemed to resist the double nudge.

You might not realize it given the massive amounts of shelf space and special displays devoted to salt-laden snacks and fizzy sugar water in your neighborhood grocery store, but the profit margin for supermarkets is higher for fresh food than for most other things. While participants in these various “nudge” studies bought more fresh produce, they still spent the same amount of money. That could mean shoppers are buying less crap and more fruit. That’s good news for grocery stores, businesses with a tiny profit margin, as well as…well, pretty much everyone else.

Incidentally, when I sat down to write this post, I felt compelled to get a peach out of the refrigerator.

Nudged to the Produce Aisle by a Look in the Mirror [New York Times]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.