Free food: It's a growing workplace trend, especially in tech companies, to incentivize productivity and morale around the office. But how can companies promote healthy choices and still provide indulgent goodies?
Google executives asked consumer behavior expert and Saint Joseph's University professor Ernest Baskin, Ph.D. and his colleagues, to help them resolve that question.
Baskin, an assistant professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph's Haub School of Business, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, worked with a team of researchers from his alma mater, Yale University, in a study of snacking behavior conducted at Google's New York Office, recently published in the journal, Appetite (April 2016). Baskin looked at the extent to which the proximity of snacks to free beverages increased snack consumption.
The study adds to the growing body of research that proves how even small environmental changes ("nudges" in the parlance of behavioral economics) can exert a powerful influence on behavior and consumption. Yet, it was the first study to measure relative proximity -- that is, the extent to which an environmental factor, like the placement of snacks, plays a role in behavior.
"It was a bit surprising that an extra few feet of distance between snacks and beverages yielded such a significant change in snacking frequency," says Baskin, who found that the probability of snacking increased by more than half when an employee visited a beverage station that was near the snack supply.
"Environmental factors can have a fairly large influence on consumer behavior and often these factors sway us unconsciously," says the project's lead researcher, who has worked extensively on major marketing and behavioral initiatives with a variety of firms, including Google, Pepsico, Activision and TIAA-CREF.
"Factors that influence consumer behavior without our full realization, like convenience or relative proximity, are especially important to study to help educate individuals about healthy decision-making," says Baskin
Another interesting finding? Most of difference in snacking behavior came from men as opposed to women. "In general, studies show that women have more chronic self-control than men," says Baskin.
Based on this research, Baskin and his colleagues offered potential interventions for reducing snacking in the workplace, such as moving healthier snack options closer to beverage stations, or making unhealthy snacks more difficult to access (placing them in a pantry or in a free vending machine). They also made recommendations for home and commercial strategies, noting in the article's conclusion: "We hope our findings spark insights and new questions beyond workplace kitchens, helping to inform the optimal design of many eating spaces, such as cafeterias, dining halls, home kitchens, and any other settings in which tempting food challenges our self-control."
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