Study finds winning ‘thrill’ an able substitute for large food portions

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Adding a small incentive with a meal could be key in persuading consumers to choose smaller portion sizes. (photo credit: iStock.com)
Adding a small incentive with a meal could be key in persuading consumers to choose smaller portion sizes. (photo credit: iStock.com)
The Happy Meal’s concept of offering a small incentive with a meal could be key in persuading consumers to choose smaller portion sizes and promote healthier meal options.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that the brain responded to a small toy, gift card, or lottery ticket in much the same way as if it were looking at a burger or pizza.

In a number of experiments, the majority of children and adults chose a half-sized portion paired with a toy or monetary prize over a full-sized portion without a toy or monetary prize. The price of the two options was kept the same.

By combining one shorter-term desire (to eat) with another shorter-term desire (to play), the researchers found this combination addressed a longer-term desire (to be healthy), and hence, different sources of happiness become commensurable.

One unexpected result was the mere prospect of receiving a small prize was found to be more motivating than the prize itself. In one experiment subjects were offered the chance to win $10, $50 or $100. They chose a smaller meal for the chance to win a $10 lottery prize than to get a guaranteed reward.

“Age did not have a significant effect,”​ as Martin Reimann, lead author of the study told FoodNavigator. “The effect worked for both kids and adults.”

Study Details

Three randomised experiments were set up. In experiment one, one hundred and twelve 6th-grade schoolchildren aged 10–12 years took part. They were asked two weeks prior whether they would prefer an avocado, ham, roast beef, tuna, or turkey sandwich for an upcoming lunch.

At lunchtime, participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In the 'non-food incentive absent' condition, participants were offered a full-sized version of their preferred sandwich (9 in.) or exactly half of that sandwich (4.5 in.).

In the 'non-food incentive present' condition, participants were offered either a full-sized version of their preferred sandwich (9 in.) or the combination of exactly half of that sandwich (4.5 in.) and a pair of inexpensive ear-bud headphones.

Participants in the 'nonfood incentive present' condition chose the full-sized sandwich to a significantly lesser extent (22% chose the full-sized portion) compared with participants in the 'nonfood incentive absent' condition (74% chose the full-sized portion).

The second experiment employed a mixed experimental design with non-food incentive - a chance to win a $100 amazon.com gift card and a chance to win 10,000 frequent flyer miles.  Seventy-four students and staff members, ranging from 20 to 43 years, from a large public university participated in this study individually on three different days.

All participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the 'non-food incentive absent' condition, participants were offered a full-sized serving of their lunch or exactly half of that serving. In the 'gift card' condition, participants were offered the same lunch choices but the half-sized portions were all paired with the chance to win a $100 amazon.com gift card.

In the 'frequent flyer miles' condition, participants were offered the same lunch choices but the half-sized portions were all paired with the chance to win 10,000 frequent flyer miles.  

Experiment three aimed to replicate the previous experime

Participants were given the chance to win 10,000 frequent flyer miles.
Participants were given the chance to win 10,000 frequent flyer miles.

nts in a natural context. Using a one-way experimental design, five hundred sixty-five adult restaurant customers had planned to order the full-sized sandwich. The researchers’ goal was to investigate whether they could incentivise adult 'full-sized-portion customers' to eat less.

In addition to the option of choosing the full-sized portion (i.e., the originally intended choice), they offered all eligible participants the option of choosing a half-sized portion paired with a lottery ticket. Each customer was randomly assigned to one of three conditions: (a) full-sized portion versus half-sized portion paired with a €10 lottery ticket, (b) full-sized portion versus half-sized portion paired with a €50 ticket, or (c) full-sized portion versus half-sized portion paired with a €100 ticket.

Participants in the €100 lottery condition chose and consumed full-sized sandwiches to a lesser extent (88% chose the full-sized portion) than participants in both the €50 lottery condition (92% chose the full-sized portion) and the €10 lottery condition (95% chose the full-sized portion).

Non-food ‘thrill’

“The fact that participants were willing to substitute part of a tangible food item for the mere prospect of a relatively small monetary premium is intriguing,”​ said Reimann. “Unlike the Happy Meal, which offers a toy every time, adults were willing to sacrifice calories for a gamble,”​ added Deborah MacInnis

The researchers also found the desirability of the prize also impacted motivation. While uncertain prizes are highly motivating, further research showed that a vague possibility of winning frequent flyer miles was more effective than a probable contest that listed the odds.

“One explanation for this finding is that possible premiums may be more emotionally evocative than certainty premiums,”​ said Reimann. “This emotional evocation is clearly present in gambling or sports contexts, where the uncertainty of winning provides added attraction and desirability through emotional ‘rushes’ and ‘thrills.’ The possibility of receiving a premium also evokes a state of hope for the premium’s receipt — a state that is in itself psychologically rewarding.”

MacInnis, Reimann and Bechara wrote that these findings imply that individuals can reward themselves for eating less food with non-food items. “This substitution of rewards assists consumers in staying happy and satisfied,” they said.

When asked if this research could have applications for those who are trying to lose weight or adopt a healthier lifestyle, Reimann commented: “Definitely—although I haven’t tested that yet, I expect that consumer could "self-reward" themselves by engaging in non-food activities in lieu of larger portions. Furthermore, parents could reward their kids for eating less with a non-food item (a small toy, an activity etc.).​”

“I think the food industry can use this as a win-win-strategy,”​ he added. “Restaurants can sell smaller portions and toys, for example, at the same price as the full-sized portion alone. Thus, both parties win: consumers consume less and stay happy, and businesses still make money.”

Source: The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research

Published online

“Can Smaller Meals Make You Happy? Behavioral, Neurophysiological, and Psychological Insights Into Motivating Smaller Portion Choice.”

Authors: Reimann, Martin, Deborah MacInnis, and Antoine Bechara

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