"Subtle factors in the choice environment shape our likelihood to eat healthy and make sustainable food choices"
Anne-Kathrin Klesse is Associate Professor in the marketing department of the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). In her research, she studies consumer judgement and decision-making. She is particularly interested in how we can nudge consumers to make “better” choices, such as opting for healthier food or making more sustainable consumption decisions. Her research is published in marketing journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research and was featured in the SDG series under Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production. "My research suggests that small, seemingly unimportant changes in our choice-environment can actually have a big impact on our choices.”
“A broad theme of my research focuses on what influences consumer food choices and how we could prompt consumers to make better decisions. For instance, when making food choices we often feel tempted to choose unhealthy food, like a chocolate cake, rather than healthy options like a fruit salad although we know the latter would be better for our health. Of course, it is fine to choose a chocolate cake, but it is important to choose the salad as well from time to time. I am investigating how subtle factors, such as the way in which we express decisions, can shape the choices that we make.”
How do you investigate such a question?
“We compare situations in which consumers express their decision by speaking with situations in which consumers express the same decision through motor movements, such as button pressing. To give an example: we bought a vending machine and asked participants to express their choice of a snack by pressing a button or by speaking into a microphone that we had attached to the machine. This allowed us to test whether merely changing the way in which consumers express their choice could change the type of snack that they choose.”
And, does it?
“We see that if people make a decision based on speaking, keeping all else constant, they make unhealthier choices than when they push a button. A reason for this could be that when we speak, we seem to make more intuitive choices and are less likely to override our automatic tendency to opt for the snack that we really desire, for example, the delicious chocolate cake. Interesting to add is that this phenomenon disappears if people speak in a foreign language; presumably, because speaking becomes less automatic.”
"Specifically, reading the description in a foreign language makes consumers more likely to eat insect-based food"
Why is this important?
“Nowadays, technological advances make it possible for consumers to express their choices using a wide variety of modalities: think of the increasing prevalence of voice-operated interfaces and Google assistants, such as Alexa or Siri. These developments make it important to understand whether and how making food choices by speaking versus manually could impact consumers’ likelihood to opt for healthy alternatives. Further, I hope to draw attention to the fact that our choices can frequently be influenced by very subtle factors that are beyond our own understanding. My research suggests that small, seemingly unimportant changes in our choice-environment can actually have a big impact on our choices.”
You do not only focus on healthy choices but also study sustainable choices; how can we nudge people to make more sustainable consumption choices?
“The marketplace offers a variety of sustainable products such as recycled water. This is human-waste water, for instance – from the toilet – that went through a specific procedure to become purified and can then be used as clean, drinking water. This technique is amazing. It can provide drinking water to many people who otherwise have no access to it. The Gates Foundation is engaged in funding this technology. The big problem with recycled water is that people find it disgusting. The same is the case with artificial meat made in the laboratory, or insect-based food. Thus, the main barrier to consuming such sustainable products is disgust. In my research, I explore language – describing the product in someone’s native or foreign language – as a potential means to attenuate feelings of disgust.”
What are your findings?
“Consider, for instance, Bagel & Beans restaurants which offer insect-based bagels. Our findings suggest that it makes a difference whether consumers read the description of the bagel in their native language (e.g. Dutch) or in a foreign language (e.g. English). Specifically, reading the description in a foreign language makes consumers more likely to eat insect-based food. The same applies for recycled water and artificial meat. The reason is that the feeling of disgust which is normally triggered by these types of products, is attenuated if consumers read them in a foreign language.”
How is this relevant? We cannot change all descriptions of sustainable products in the Netherlands into English.
“Of course not, but it is still very relevant in this age of globalisation. Many people nowadays receive information in their daily life which is not in their native language. This makes it important to understand how receiving information in a foreign language can alter their judgement and perceptions. Besides this, our insights suggest that using words – even in the native language – that are less strongly associated with feelings of disgust, could help nudge sustainable consumption choices.”