April 28, 2009
Salads On Menus Translate Into More Fries Sales?

Seeing the salad option causes vicarious salad consumption that justifies real french fries consumption?

DURHAM, N.C. - Just seeing a salad on the menu seems to push some consumers to make a less healthy meal choice, according a Duke University researcher.

It's an effect called "vicarious goal fulfillment," in which a person can feel a goal has been met if they have taken some small action, like considering the salad without ordering it, said Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, who led the research.

In a lab experiment, participants possessing high levels of self-control related to food choices (as assessed by a pre-test) avoided french fries, the least healthy item on a menu, when presented with only unhealthy choices. But when a side salad was added to this menu, they became much more likely to take the fries.

The team's findings are available in the online version of the Journal of Consumer Research, and will appear in its October 2009 print edition.

Natural selection created some pretty strange cognitive biases in human minds. Methinks if you want to ensure you eat healthy food you should go to places that only offer healthy food.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 April 28 12:24 AM  Brain Appetite

comatus said at April 28, 2009 11:01 AM:

Yes. Blame McDonald's. That's some future you're punditing there, bub. You must be a Futurist.

No one gets sick from eating at McDonald's. That one restaurant chain has done more for "healthy food" than any food-safety campaign in the history of governments. To be harmed by McDonald's food, you have to spill it in your lap while it's still hot.

"Health food" restaurants on the other hand, and by extensive personal experience, are crawling with roaches. Exotic, multinational, globe-trotting roaches.

I'm going to wager that you're not old enough to remember when there were certain kinds of restaurant at which one just did not choose to eat, and when overland travel was a gastric, not a gastronomic, adventure. It was not long ago.

You're spoiled, and so is your "healthy" food. "Methinks." Well, youthinks wrong.

Mark S. said at April 28, 2009 11:33 AM:

From the article:

Working with co-authors Keith Wilcox and Lauren Block of Baruch College, and Beth Vallen of Loyola College in Maryland, Fitzsimons asked research participants to select a food item from one of two pictorial menus. Half of the participants saw a menu of unhealthy items, including only french fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato with butter and sour cream. The rest of the participants were given the same three options, plus the choice of a side salad.

When the side salad was added, a few consumers did actually choose it. However, the vast majority of consumers did not, and went toward unhealthier options. Ironically, this effect was strongest among those consumers who normally had high levels of self-control.

When a participant is only shown unhealthy items, they select an unhealthy item. When you put one healthy item on it, then some people chose the healthy item. So fewer people chose an unhealthy item if it was available, then if it wasn't available. It seems to be spun in a manner that the results don't indicate. I'll be looking forward to the full details of the study, but right now it doesn't indicate anything close to what they are suggesting.

TW said at April 28, 2009 11:35 AM:

Oh yes, people who prefer to eat healthy things are so spoiled! Even though I live in a prosperous society with ample food choices, I deliberately eat only food that was available during the dustbowl years or that could be found in Third World countries. That way I'm not being spoiled.

Joe said at April 28, 2009 12:31 PM:

Except french fries aren't unhealthy. Very few foods are. Even when using the PC rating of food, salads don't fair so well when you add all the things that actually make them taste decent, like cheese and dressing.

The study itself sounds absurd and very poorly designed. It appears to be drawing conclusions out of thin air. Just saying that "this effect was strongest among those consumers who normally had high levels of self-control" betrays a bias so strong that you already know the researchers will "find" what they set out to find, no matter what.

(A more interesting study would compare the results of choices in a laboratory versus choices made when in an actual restaurant, especially when in a group. I'll bet the choice of salad increases in the latter.)

Random said at April 28, 2009 1:42 PM:

Mmmmmm, a whole lot of attacks by people who (a) haven't read the post and/or (b) know less about food than my dog. And I don't have a dog.


You're a great example of "and". For (a) the post doesn't even mention McDonald's, nor discuss the overall effect of any fast-food company on health. It points out that availability of a perceived healthy choice increases the likelihood of choosing a perceived unhealthy choice in certain people. Ergo you didn't bother to actually read it.

Ignoring the stupidity of your unwarranted connection between health-food service and roaches, for (b) you should be aware that good food prepared where there are roaches is still far healthier than eating bad food prepared where there are none. Roaches have either no impact or a very immediate impact (i.e. food poisoning). If they did commonly cause food poisoning then there would be far more cases, and they would quickly be linked with a location. That is not the case. Healthy food is good for your long-term wellbeing, and incidentally for your immune system to protect against most diseases, including food poisoning. Ergo you have no idea what your talking about when it comes to health and diet.


I reckon you read, just felt you had to write about subjects of which you are completely ignorant, i.e. cooking good, healthy and tasty food and experimental technique, both areas where I have a little experience.

French fries eaten on occasion are not unhealthy, as you say few foods are. However fries eaten frequently, especially fast-fod joint fries (you can make far healthier, tastier ones at home) are. They contain little fibre, few vitamins and minerals and little protein. They are almost entirely oil, water and starch, and covered in salt (which is not as bad as many assume, but not good in large quantities either). The oil used is not good for you, (although there are worse oils and fats used to deep fry, such as the lard in northern England, for example).

As for poor salads, of course if you get your salad from a fast-food place it is not especially healthy, but it's still healthier than a burger or fries. While it might have high fat and calories it does at least have some other nutritional value (vitamins and minerals; the press have a ridiculous way of only measuring health in calories and fat content, which is not teh whole picture). However given two minutes and the right ingredients I could place in front of you a delicious, healthy salad with a little parmesan and a drizzle of healthy olive oil, maybe some walnut or sesame oils. If you ate like that all the time than you would find the fast food distasteful after a while; I do most of the time.

As for your second paragraph, you just drew your conclusion out of thin air (ironically). You have no idea how they set up their experiment, you have not explained why they see a stronger effect in people with self-control. A likely answer seems obvious - those without self-control would have the fries anyway if they felt like it, regardless of the salad option. This therefore actually supports the hypothesis, and shows no sign of a predetermined conclusion.

Shaky Barnes said at April 28, 2009 2:03 PM:

Oh please, this isn't due to "vicarious goal fulfillment", you brainless academics. It's because seeing a picture of a salad on the McDonald's menu board reminds you of how much they suck compared to real food.

JorgXMcKie said at April 28, 2009 2:05 PM:

I think I understand how the experiment was set up, and the results seem reasonable. However, lets not spread too much misinformation. Natural pure lard (non-hydrogenated like we get on the farm) has 280mg of Omega-3 acid per ounce, much more than most oils, less than half as much cholesterol than butter, and has more unsaturated than saturated fats. I'd like to see an experiment on using olive oil versus lard on a scale big enough to get good data.

The data on cholesterol is mixed, at best, except for those at either end of the bell-curve (i.e. both very low and very high levels [+/- 2.5 standard deviations, more or less), where it is indeed bad for you. Much work has shown that lowering cholesterol levels from slightly or moderately elevated (under the new guidelines) to where they 'should' be confers pretty much zero benefit.

Finally, there is precisely zero evidence that salt in any quantity that can reasonably, voluntarily consumed by humans does any damage to anyone without very bad hypertension, and the data there isn't so hot, either.

TTT said at April 28, 2009 2:37 PM:


People could behave like adults and ORDER THE SALAD.

If seeing a salad causes an order of French Fries, then people deserve the diseases they get.

I say we halt all funding into cancer research until Americans improve their diets. A good diet (instead of an American diet) will do more to cut the cancer death rate than $1 Trillion of research will do.

Healthy foods are cheaper than unhealthy foods too. People who disagree don't know what healthy foods are.

oh no not again said at April 28, 2009 10:34 PM:

Experimental psychology's methods, as a field, suck terribly. I say this as someone with a MS in sociology and psychology, having seen and conducted plenty of my own research.

"Vicarious goal fulfillment"? Puh-leeze. Here's another equally likely explanation: A menu with (some) healthy (seeming) choices makes the whole establishment seem more balanced and healthy than one with an all-deep-fried menu. Fries at the salad bar somehow seem less bad than fries at McD's.

See? Anyone can be an experimental psychologist! For bonus points, prove convincingly why one explanation is more correct than the other (hint: it doesn't matter which position you pick as long as you selectively present evidence in your favor!).

Josh Reiter said at April 30, 2009 7:35 AM:

What place is this you speak of that has something called, "salad" on the menu?

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