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Do Fries Come With That Salad?

Posted Nov 04 2009 10:03pm

As athletes, we train, eat, and sleep (well, maybe a few other things). So when I came across an article on the psychology of eating I couldn't resist sharing it.

Before we get into the research, let's take a little quiz:

You go to a fast food chain restaurant. You look at the menu board and notice that they have recently revised their offerings to include a new side salad. You place your order for a $6 restaurant style McBurger and the person taking your order asks you, "would you like a fries, a baked potato, or a salad with the burger?" You choose:
(a) the salad
(b) the baked potato
(c) the fries

The correct answer.. let me just say that according to some recent research in the Journal of Consumer Behavior it isn't the salad.

In the article Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision researchers maintain that having a healthy item on the menu may make you less like to choose it, and more likely to choose the worst thing on the menu.

Here's their explanation: The most common way that people perceive progress in attaining their goals is to actively pursue them. If, however, you have made some progress toward your goal, you may be tempted, at least temporarily, to choose some alternative that is not necessarily in line with your end goal. The authors give the example of people who have just finished working out. They may feel that they have successfully satisfied their goal to be healthy (at least for the day) and therefore allow themselves to indulge in dessert at their next meal.

What's even more interesting is that just intending to reach your goal makes it easier to indulge. So if you take today off from training but you tell yourself, "tomorrow I have a long run scheduled" you are more likely to eat dessert tonight, even though you've done nothing today toward your goal. The authors' call that "vicarious goal fulfillment."

Or, as the researchers put it, "when individuals have the opportunity to engage in a course of action that is consistent with healthy eating goals, as they do when a healthy alternative is merely present in a choice set, the consideration of this option will satisfy the goal—at least temporarily—and, in turn, license them to indulge".

The researchers set up a series of experiments in which participants were given a list of food choices. Some lists included healthy items. Some didn't. If the healthy choice were present, the unhealthiest option was chosen. In addition, if you were a "high self-control" person -- someone who was very self-disciplined -- you were more likely to do so.

The researcher's bottom line: ""Just because we consumers want to see healthier items available does not mean that we are going to choose them."

The bottom line for athletes: Stay out of fast food restaurants -- especially those that offer salads with their fries!

Reference: Wilcox et al. (2009) Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision. Journal of Consumer Research, 090409080957062 DOI: 10.1086/599219

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