By Cass R. Sunstein, Bloomberg Opinion
A PROVISION of the Affordable Care Act that is strongly supported by Donald Trump’s administration requires calorie labels at US chain restaurants. The basic idea is that if consumers are informed, they will reduce their calorie consumption — and improve their health.
Unfortunately, it isn’t clear that calorie labels are doing much good. Some studies find that consumers are not influenced by them. They eat what they like, and they don’t care about calories. While other studies do find a real impact on people’s behavior, specialists question whether and to what extent the labels are promoting healthier eating.
New research finds that a small and simple fix might make a big difference: Put the calorie labels on the left side of menu items, rather than the right. That’s an intriguing finding, because it has implications for design choices by the private and public sectors in countless domains.
The researchers — Steven Dallas of New York University, Peggy Liu of the University of Pittsburgh and Peter Ubel of Duke University — conducted three different experiments. The first was undertaken at a chain restaurant on a college campus.
About 150 participants were randomly assigned to one of three paper menus: no calorie information, calorie information on the right and calorie information on the left. Putting the information on the right had no effect. But when calories were put on the left, participants reduced the number of calories ordered by a whopping 24.4%.
The second study was an online survey involving about 300 people, asked to make choices among food items on a menu. About half saw calorie labels on the left and half on the right. Participants were also asked to say what factors influenced their choice (such as taste, size, price, value, and calories).
When calorie information was placed on the left, people said that they would order significantly lower-calorie meals. In addition, they were much more likely to say that calories influenced their choices.
The third study was the most ingenious. The researchers recruited about 250 Hebrew-speaking Israelis. Unlike English, Hebrew is read right to left. Dallas and his colleagues hypothesized that for speakers of Hebrew, their central finding would be reversed: Calorie information would have a greater impact if it was placed on the right.
As in the first experiment, participants were divided into three groups: calories to the left, calories to the right, and no calorie information. As in the second experiment, participants were surveyed about their choices.
When calories were placed to the left, Hebrew speakers were unaffected; the number of calories ordered was the same as in the no-calories condition. But when calories were placed to the right, participants ordered significantly fewer calories.
Here is a simple explanation for these findings: People are greatly influenced by what they see first. If they see “cheeseburger” first, they might well think, “That’s exactly what I want!” If they see “300 calories” right after, they might think, “OK, but that’s exactly what I want!”
If they see “300 calories” first, they might well think, “That’s a lot of a calories.” If they see “cheeseburger” right after, they might think, “OK, but that’s a lot of calories.” In other words, what we see first, on a menu or anywhere else, might orient us, and prove decisive, when we assess what we see second, third, and fourth.
As the authors emphasize, their findings are preliminary. The samples are relatively small. The second and third experiments involve surveys rather than actual behavior. If people care only or above all about taste, a calorie label might not matter, wherever it is placed.
Nonetheless, the findings are striking enough to justify follow-up studies — and also to justify experiments by the private sector and by cities and states, testing whether calorie labels will have greater effects when they are placed to the left. In view of the potential public health benefits, those experiments should be conducted sooner rather than later.
There are broader lessons here. Behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Richard Thaler emphasizes the importance of “supposedly irrelevant factors” — design details that ought not to have an impact, but that can make all the difference. If an item is listed first on a menu or some kind of list, people are more likely to choose it. (And, yes, this is also true of economists, choosing among highly technical papers in their field.)
In the private and public sectors, people are sometimes disappointed to find that with respect to health, safety and finance, their initiatives do not work nearly as well as they hoped. One reason is that they do not ask a crucial question: How do people process information? Just asking that question can point the way to solutions to urgent problems.
Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of The Cost-Benefit Revolution and a co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.