Tweens and teens are a difficult demographic to nudge toward healthier behavior because the messenger compromises its credibility in youngsters’ eyes. In other words, if it’s something adults want them to do, adolescents tend to dig in their heels.
But what if a bit of reverse psychology was deployed, and it is the harmful behavior that seems to be what adults want and the healthy behavior is rebellious?
That was the reasoning behind a study published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences of the United States in which a group of 536 eighth graders was given the message that eating healthy foods is a way to stick it to "The Man."
The study involved giving half the study group of youngsters a presentation that purports to show how food manufacturers manipulate consumers to get them to eat more junk food. The other half of the group was given a standard presentation on the benefits of healthy eating.
The next day, the whole group was involved in a seemingly unrelated event in which they had a choice of snacks ranging from cookies, chips and sugared sodas to fresh fruits, trail mix and baby carrots. The result was that the group that had seen the presentation on consumer manipulation was 11 percent more likely to choose at least one healthy snack than those who saw the healthy-foods-are-good-for-you presentation.
“Compared with traditional health education materials or to a non–food-related control, this treatment led eighth graders to see healthy eating as more autonomy-assertive and social justice-oriented behavior and to forgo sugary snacks and drinks in favor of healthier options a day later in an unrelated context,” concluded the study’s abstract. “Public health interventions for adolescents may be more effective when they harness the motivational power of that group’s existing strongly held values.”
The researchers concede that the study results may be only a temporary shift in behavior, so they intend to follow up with a more extended effort in which they will track cafeteria food choices made by students who were given the manipulation presentation to see if the experience has a longer term effect on behavior.
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