Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor who studies consumer psychology at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, has researched the disconnect.
In studies, he has presented participants with a range of menu choices — sometimes just unhealthy items, sometimes neutral items (like a fish sandwich) and sometimes healthy choices like salad. It turned out that including a healthy option did change people’s behavior — by making them eat more unhealthily.
“When you put a healthy option up there on an otherwise unhealthy menu, not only do we not pick it, but its presence on the menu leads us to swing over and pick something that’s worse for us than we normally would,” Mr. Fitzsimons said.
Why? Mr. Fitzsimons called the phenomenon “vicarious goal fulfillment.” By seeing a healthy menu option at a restaurant, “it basically satisfies that goal to be healthy,” he said, and gives consumers leeway to order what they want.
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