Shopping Hungry? Psychology Trick Could Stifle Bad Food Choices

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It’s a scenario you’ve probably experienced: You go to the supermarket hungry, and you end up with a shopping cart filled with foods you probably wouldn’t buy if you weren’t feeling famished.

But researchers from the Netherlands may have found a way to make healthier choices when shopping hungry.

It’s true that “when people are hungry, they tend to make impulsive decisions,” said lead study author Tracy Cheung, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Think of the phrase, “[your] eyes are bigger than [your] stomach” — you buy too much food, more than you actually need, for example, Cheung said. Or people may pick out tasty, but unhealthy foods that are immediately satisfying.

But in the new study, published online May 11 in the journal Appetite, Cheung and her team wanted to see if this impulsivity could be used to help people make healthy choices.

The researchers hypothesized that “because hungry people are impulsive, they would be more likely to use heuristics, which are essentially mental shortcuts or decisional rules of thumb,” Cheung told Live Science.

In the study, the researchers used a type of heuristic called the “social proof heuristic.” Basically, this type of heuristic is just being a copycat, Cheung said, and doing what the majority is doing.

The study consisted of two experiments. In the first, about 200 participants were asked to take an online survey, which included a question about how hungry they felt on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very hungry). Then, the participants were presented with six pairs of foods, one healthy (such as a salad) and one unhealthy (such as a quesadilla). But half of the participants were given additional information: For each of the food pairs, a bar graph showed that most “previous participants” had selected the healthier choice. This served as the social-proof heuristic.

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