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Food Decision Making

Lauren Block
Journal of Consumer Research
Vol. 39, No. 5 (February 2013), pp. iv-vi
Published by: Oxford University Press
DOI: 10.1086/669343
Stable URL:
Page Count: 3
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Spring 2012

Food Decision Making

Lauren BlockCurator
Baruch College, CUNY

As consumers navigating the food-rich environments in which we live, we are faced daily, if not hourly with questions: Can I eat this? Should I eat that? Why did I eat so much of this? Not surprisingly, the centrality of food to consumers’ emotional, physical, and psychological well-being, overlaid with a societal focus on our increasingly obesogenic environment, has given rise to a substantial body of research that explores the inherent tension in our relationships with food and food decision making. Such research applies a broad range of theoretical perspectives to bring insight into consumers’ food decision making. The articles selected for this special collection represent the spectrum of internal and external motivational drivers, and the social, psychological, and stimulus-based contextual factors that influence our food decision making. Consumer research on individual food decision making is helping us understand the current paradox of consumption: why today’s consumers, despite higher levels of food and nutrition literacy than ever before, and a national obsession with calories, fat, and BMI, are struggling with overconsumption. As a body of research, studies like the ones collected here are helping in the move from the paternalistic, normative, and not-effective model of “food as health” toward a new paradigm of “food as well-being.”

The special collection begins with a paper by Aydinoğlu and Krishna, who demonstrate that the stimulus-based contextual cue size label (e.g., “small, medium, large”) affects consumers’ actual consumption of everyday foods. The visual bias of the label drives perceptions of the quantity of food consumed, which can lead to unintended or uninformed overconsumption or, as the authors say, “guiltless gluttony.”

Van Ittersum and Wansink continue the examination of the overconsumption paradox by pointing out how our food decision making is under the influence of contextual perceptual biases. The Delboeuf illusion is a well-established perceptual bias in which a target circle seems larger when placed in the context of a smaller concentric circle than a larger one. Van Ittersum and Wansink apply this psychological bias to serving platters and food consumption and derive a model of the relationship between the diameter ratio of the serving size and the size and color of the dinnerware.

The collection continues with two articles that merge contextual cues with internal motivational drivers of food decision making. In the first, Finkelstein and Fishbach explore the effect of imposed healthy eating on subsequent food consumption across levels of internal motivation to eat healthy. Their finding that imposed healthy eating leads to increased perceptions of hunger and greater subsequent food consumption supports the movement toward food as well-being as a perhaps more effective approach to our societal overconsumption dilemma. Continuing the discourse on motivational influences on food consumption, Irmak, Vallen, and Robinson show that dieters rely on labeling heuristics to a greater extent than nondieters. Dieters rely more on food-related cues such as labels of healthfulness and the learned associations of such labels to inform their product evaluations and consumption decisions.

The collection concludes with a paper by McFerran and colleagues, who take us into the social contextual domain of food decision making and show us that our consumption decisions are prone to social influence in quite surprising ways. These authors demonstrate that people choose larger portions if a previous consumer selected a large quantity, but that this tendency is adjusted for that other consumer’s body size. Perhaps as we navigate our myriad food choices and decisions, we need not only ask ourselves, “Why did I eat so much of this?” but also “Why did what they eat influence how much I ate?”

Guiltless Gluttony: The Asymmetric Effect of Size Labels on Size Perceptions and Consumption

Nılüfer Z. Aydinoğlu and
Aradhna Krishna

Size labels adopted by food vendors can have a major impact on size judgments and consumption. In forming size judgments, consumers integrate the actual size information from the stimuli with the semantic cue from the size label. Size labels influence not only size perception and actual consumption, they also affect perceived consumption. Size labels can also result in relative perceived size reversals, so that consumers deem a smaller package to be bigger than a larger one. Further, consumers are more likely to believe a label that professes an item to be smaller (vs. larger) in the size range associated with that item. This asymmetric effect of size labels can result in larger consumption without the consumer even being aware of it (“guiltless gluttony”).

Journal of Consumer Research, 37 (April 2011), 1095–1112

Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s Bias on Serving and Eating Behavior

Koert Van Ittersum and
Brian Wansink

Despite the challenged contention that consumers serve more onto larger dinnerware, it remains unclear what would cause this and who might be most at risk. The results of five studies suggest that the neglected Delboeuf illusion may explain how the size of dinnerware creates two opposing biases that lead people to overserve on larger plates and bowls and underserve on smaller ones. A countercyclical sinus-shaped relationship is shown to exist between these serving biases and the relative gap between the edge of the food and the edge of the dinnerware. Although these serving biases are difficult to eliminate with attention and education, changing the color of one’s dinnerware or tablecloth may help attenuate them. By showing that the Delboeuf illusion offers a mechanistic explanation for how dinnerware size can bias serving and intake, the authors open new theoretical opportunities for linking illusions to eating behavior and suggest how simple changes in design can improve consumer welfare.

Journal of Consumer Research, 39 (August 2012), 215–28

When Healthy Food Makes You Hungry

Stacey R. Finkelstein and
Ayelet Fishbach

Do subtle cues for imposed healthy eating make consumers hungry? Imposed healthy eating signals that the health goal was sufficiently met, and thus it increases the strength of the conflicting motive to fulfill one’s appetite. Accordingly, consumers asked to sample an item framed as healthy later reported being hungrier and consumed more food than those who sampled the same item framed as tasty or those who did not eat at all. These effects of healthy eating depend on the consumer’s perception that healthy eating is mandatory; therefore, only imposed healthy eating made consumers hungrier, whereas freely choosing to eat healthy did not increase hunger.

Journal of Consumer Research, 37 (October 2010), 357–67

The Impact of Product Name on Dieters’ and Nondieters’ Food Evaluations and Consumption

Caglar Irmak,
Beth Vallen, and
Stefanie Rosen Robinson

This research explores the impact of merely altering the name of a food on dieters’ and nondieters’ evaluations of the food’s healthfulness and taste, as well as consumption. Four studies demonstrate that when a food is identified by a relatively unhealthy name (e.g., pasta), dieters perceive the item to be less healthful and less tasty than do nondieters. When the identical food is assigned a relatively healthy name (e.g., salad), however, dieting tendency has no effect on product evaluations. This effect, which results in differences in actual food consumption, is explained by nondieters’ insensitivity to food cues as well as dieters’ reliance on cues indicating a lack of healthfulness and tendency to employ heuristic information processing when evaluating foods. These findings contribute to the body of literature that explores both individual and contextual factors that influence food evaluation and consumption.

Journal of Consumer Research, 38 (August 2011), 390–405

I’ll Have What She’s Having: Effects of Social Influence and Body Type on Food Choices of Others

Brent McFerran,
Darren W. Dahl,
Gavan J. Fitzsimons, and
Andrea C. Morales

This research examines how the body type of consumers affects the food consumption of other consumers around them. Consumers anchor on the quantities others around them select, but these portions are adjusted according to the body type of the other consumer. People choose a larger portion following another consumer who first selects a large quantity, but this portion is significantly smaller if the other is obese than if she is thin. The adjustment is more pronounced for consumers who are low in appearance self-esteem and it is attenuated under cognitive load.

Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (April 2010), 915–29