Telling kids that sugary snacks are bad for them is a strategy that backfires.
It’s just like telling a child not to touch something. What’s the first thing that child is going to do? You got it. Start touching. Everything. The boomerang effect is fast. And it will undermine all of your efforts.
I’m reading a study published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research about negative messaging, such as, “All dessert is bad.” When dieters hear these kinds of messages, they exhibit message-opposing behavior. They do the opposite.
And what do non-dieters do? They simply ignore the messages.
Yes, the study is about adult dieters and non-dieters, but both responses sound a lot like kids to me. And the solutions the researchers offer up, which are at the bottom of this post, sound a lot like the kinds of things parents can easily do with their kids.
What’s important about this research is that the messaging that was being studied never told people not to eat the “bad” food. Rather, it simply labeled the food as “bad.”
In other words, you don’t have to go so far as to actually restrict desserts to teach people to reach for desserts. You simply have to focus on the negative aspects of those foods.
- That has too much sugar.
- It’s loaded with fat.
- It’s really bad for you.
“Reactance theory postulates that when individuals feel that someone else is constraining their freedom to choose or act, they will enter a motivational state of reactance to regain that freedom, manifested in adversarial behavior.”
The key difference between dieters and non-dieters, according to this study, is that non-dieters are more sensitive to their internal cues of hunger and satiety.
Non-Dieters focus inwards to make eating decisions so they are less swayed by external messaging.
Dieters, on the other hand, are less sensitive to their internal cues of hunger and satiety. They look for external messaging to make eating decisions and, thus, are more easily swayed by that messaging. Combine that with dieters having more interest in unhealthy foods, on average, and you have the perfect storm.
This translates pretty well to parenting. Some kids aren’t that interested in sweets and treats. Others are extremely focused on them.
Give consumers more freedom of choice. Choice eliminates the boomerang effect.
Choice. That’s the recommendation these researchers propose. It’s also the recommendation I’ve been making for years. Of course, as consumer researchers, this team is interested in selling stuff. That should interest you too. (What else is feeding kids other than a selling “job?”)
The researchers suggest the following alternatives to negative messaging:
- Offer healthful defaults on menus to increase choice.
- Use “decoy” options:
- Adding an extremely low calorie meal on the menu might cause consumers to choose the second lowest calorie option.
- Or, adding a less-attractive salad option might make a different salad option more appealing.
- Increase the appeal of healthful foods by making them more available and more familiar.
Sounds good to me!
~Changing the Conversation from Nutrition to Habits.~