Consumers will continue to ‘go large’ at shops and takeaways because our brains are “subservient” to habits – some of them bad for us.
That’s the conclusion of consumer behaviour expert David Harvey, of the University of Huddersfield, who says the marketing ploy known as ‘upselling’ isn’t likely to disappear soon.
Mr Harvey has commented on the claim that the obesity crisis is being fuelled by businesses pushing unhealthy food and larger portions on shoppers and diners.
“A recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) draws attention to the practice of upselling in the food industry, particularly in restaurants and fast food outlets,” he said.
“Staff in these establishments are often trained to encourage customers to consume more than they initially intended, either by inviting them to ‘go large’ with extra portions, or to purchase additional products.
“This is known as upselling and the RSPH estimates that the average customer consumes an additional 17,500 calories per year by agreeing to these offers.”
Two thirds of adults in the UK are now considered to be overweight or obese and there is a consensus amongst nutritionists and health experts that this is largely caused by excessive calorie intake and corresponding lack of exercise.
Mr Harvey says most people are aware of the long-term consequences of eating too much and not taking enough exercise. They often feel guilty when they over-indulge, but many are serial re-offenders.
So why don’t consumers resist these bad habits? Is it the fast-food company’s fault, or the consumer’s?
“The problem is that a consumer’s slow, rational, decision-making powers (known as System 2 thinking) often become subservient to their faster more automatic habits (known as System 1 thinking) in many situations,” says Mr Harvey.
“The environment of a fast food restaurant along with the pricing structure and timely staff invitations to go large, create a ‘choice architecture’ which nudges us into taking advantage of what seems like a good deal at the time.”
The RSPH suggests that better labelling and information could help, such as including not just the calorie content, but also the equivalent amount of exercise required to burn off the calories.
“Unfortunately, this extra information would require consumers to use their System 2 thinking to make sense of it and act on it. The reality is that System 1 thinking would probably ignore it and rely on bad habits to make a decision. What people say and what they actually do are often disconnected!”
So, should the government legislate to limit upselling?
Mr Harvey can’t see it happening soon.
“There would of course be huge resistance and counter-lobbying by the food industry and objections from libertarians about more ‘nanny-state’ interference. Apart from all that the enforcement of such controls would also require huge resources.
“For better or worse, I think the British public will continue to ‘go large and get large’ for the foreseeable future.”