The Behavioralist as Nutritionist: Leveraging Behavioral Economics To Improve Child Food Choice and Consumption

John A. List, Anya Savikhin Samek

NBER Working Paper No. 20132
Issued in May 2014
NBER Program(s):   HE

Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S., with now almost a third of children ages 2-19 deemed overweight or obese. In this study, we leverage recent findings from behavioral economics to explore new approaches to tackling one aspect of childhood obesity: food choice and consumption. Using a field experiment where we include more than 1,500 children, we report several key insights. First, we find that individual incentives can have large influences: in the control, only 17% of children prefer the healthy snack, whereas the introduction of small incentives increases take-up of the healthy snack to roughly 75%, more than a four-fold increase. There is some evidence that the effects continue after the treatment period, consistent with a model of habit formation. Second, we find little evidence that the framing of incentives (loss versus gain) matters. While incentives work, we find that educational messaging alone has little influence on food choice. Yet, we do observe an important interaction effect between messaging and incentives: together they provide an important influence on food choice. For policymakers, our findings show the power of using incentives to combat childhood obesity. For academics, our approach opens up an interesting combination of theory and experiment that can lead to a better understanding of theories that explain healthy decisions and what incentives can influence them.

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Machine-readable bibliographic record - MARC, RIS, BibTeX

Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w20132

Published: List, John A. & Samek, Anya Savikhin, 2015. "The behavioralist as nutritionist: Leveraging behavioral economics to improve child food choice and consumption," Journal of Health Economics, Elsevier, vol. 39(C), pages 135-146. citation courtesy of

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