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Does Having More Information Change Consumer Behavior?

When New York City mandated last year that chain restaurants had to label the calorie content of items on the menu, many assumed that restaurants would lose business as customers saw how many calories were in their burgers and fries and opted to stay home and eat a lighter meal instead. At the very least, it seemed that lower calorie options would gain popularity.

However, a study from the Yale School of Management found that this hasn't necessarily been the case.

Victoria Brescoll, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, and Brian Elbel, Rogan Kersh and L. Beth Dixon, all from New York University, studied the fast food purchases of participants before and after the calorie labeling mandate. They focused the study on low income and minority neighborhoods in which residents face a greater risk of obesity.

Here's what they found:

  • After calorie labeling, 54 percent of New York City participants reported noticing the new information.
  • 27.7 percent said the calorie labels influenced their food choices; 88 percent of that group reported buying fewer calories.
  • But here's where things get interesting: When researchers looked at food receipts, they found that participants did not purchase fewer calories. In fact, the calorie average went up slightly, from 825 pre-labeling to 846 post-labeling.
According to Brescoll, this doesn't mean that posting calories won't have an effect: "The take-away isn't that menu labeling doesn't work, it's that it might not be effective in isolation. There needs to be other concurrent interventions, such as educating people about daily caloric intake."

However, I'm guessing that some of these consumers are already educated about how many calories they're supposed to eat, and that's why they told researchers they purchased foods with fewer calories even when they did not. Most consumers today know what they're supposed to buy, be it the hybrid car or the salad with light dressing on the side. But if this study is any indication, the Big Macs of the world will continue to have their place in the gap between consumer knowledge and consumer desire.

Burger image courtesy of Flickr user avlxyz, CC 2.0.

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