In policy making, there is a recurring demand that consumers be better educated at a young age, and more thoroughly informed about nutrition. There are frequent calls for a “transformation in the minds of consumers” – away from cheap, fatty, and sugary foods and toward nutritionally sound, healthy diets. Many political and social actors have attempted to change consumer knowledge, attitudes, and preferences in order to encourage healthier lives. Yet despite the efforts that have been made, policy measures aimed at educating and informing consumers have only had limited success. Even broadly implemented community-based and longer-term intervention programs have experienced setbacks after initial periods of success, and have thus rarely proven sustainable. Why do these interventions fail? Why does improved education about nutrition and health not lead to improved food choices and health behavior? And, above all, what alternatives remain for successful nutrition policy, both in terms of concepts and measures?

A fruitful approach for answering these questions is provided by behavioral economics, which is a field of consumer behavior research that has been engaged for several years with questions related to nutrition and consumer policy. Conceptually, it builds on behavioral and psychological theories and methods developed over 50 years. Fundamentally, behavioral economics is concerned with the question of how people actually behave in decision-making situations. A primary focus is placed on two aspects: first, on what are referred to as decision heuristics and biases on the part of consumers, and second, on the specific effect of the situation – or setting – in which the decision takes place.

Decision heuristics and biases come into play in decision situations involving uncertainty, which is a relevant factor in most decision-making situations, including those in the area of food choice. Empirical research has shown that we humans are far from “rational” – in the sense of following up our own preferences and intentions – and generally inform ourselves to a far lesser extent than is suggested. Thus, during the search phase of the consumption process (i.e. food shopping or looking at a menu), we only perceive selective product characteristics, and because of our limited processing capacities,we restrict our search criteria to just a few. The presence of a large variety of (actual or claimed) product alternatives is likelier to confuse us than to generate optimal buying decisions, it produces choice overload. Thus, fewer alternatives often end up being “more” – one of the success factors of food discounters that limit their assortment to a few alternatives per item.

The Consumer Toward Healthier Choices

Moreover, consumers are strongly influenced by earlier decisions and habits, even if these have not proven to be optimal. To some extent, we allow ourselves to be swayed by emotions and are often influenced simply by the way that product information is presented -even the name of a food product, whether it “sounds” healthful or not – influences our choice. At the moment of purchase, there are a number of decision heuristics and biases that systematically undermine ideal behavior. The anchor effect leads us to overvalue the information we obtained first; the source effect draws greater attention to the source of information and leads to assumptions about its credibility that may not necessarily be correct; and herd behavior makes us adopt products that others are also purchasing. Alongside these effects, we are relatively bad at estimating probabilities, and thus, risks. We tend to overestimate our capacity for self-control and discipline. On the other hand, we are gifted at cheating in the way we conduct our mental bookkeeping (“Today I ate too much, but I’ll just eat less tomorrow”). Overall, we tend to select current enjoyment (i.e. an ice cream now) over conditions we wish for later (i.e. an attractive figure), which behavioral economists explain in terms of the hyperbolic discounting of future conditions. And yet, depending on our circumstances, educational level, and strength of will, we can formally and informally develop self-commitment strategies that help to counteract such disadvantageous behavioral tendencies.

The decision-making situation itself has a comparably large effect on behavior. Research findings demonstrate that the triple A (i.e. affordability, availability, and accessibility) factors associated with an action or purchasing alternatives have a major impact on decisions, and also help to explain the often postulated “attitude–behavior gap.” Thus, marketers have long understood that how a product is positioned in the spatial architecture of the store (for example, as a “stopper” at eye level on the shelf) has a major impact on sales. The same is true for the perception of rapid availability (i.e. “ready-to-eat” dishes) and the products’ or brand’s potential of reward and cortical relief. In fact, most preferences appear to be less stable than postulated in neo-classical models; instead, many preferences are first formed at the place where the decision is made, and then guide the decision.