Can Healthy Eating Be Conditioned In The Human Psyche?

Thursday, January 11th, 2018 | 1423 Views

Psychologists from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands posit that unhealthy eating habits are reversible by extrapolating results of Pavlovian study.

Can Healthy Eating Be Conditioned In The Human Psyche?

Ivan Pavlov’s study on classical conditioning shed light on the stimuli-based associations dogs held with food. Over a series of studies, Pavlov noticed that dogs created an association between the sound of a bell and food by salivating even though food itself was not presented to them.

Extrapolating results from the early 20th century Pavlovian study, psychologists Aukje Verhoeven, Poppy Watson and Sanne de Wit posit that food-related cues can override consumers’ intention to eat healthy. Like the bell in Pavlov’s study, stimuli like sights and smells can eliminate the intention for a consumer to choose a Healthier Choice option.

Dr Verhoevan comments: “Health warnings for healthy food choices only seem to be effective in an environment where no food cues are present. Whenever stimuli are present which people have come to associate with certain snacks, they choose the accompanying (unhealthy) food product, even when they know it is unhealthy or aren’t really craving that food product. It didn’t matter whether we alerted the subjects before or after they learned the associations with food cues.”

Using this as the base of their findings, Dr Verhoeven et al. hypothesised that the human psyche’s response to unhealthy food options can be reappropriated to encourage positive and healthy choices.

“It is worthwhile exposing people to healthy food products together with certain environmental cues more often, for example by showing more adverts for healthy products. The environment could also be shaped such that healthy choices are the easiest to make, for instance by placing healthy products at the front in canteens or by replacing chocolate bars with apples and healthy snacks at the cash register. In this way, you give people a gentle push in the right direction,” Dr Verhoeven comments.

Over time, the researchers believe that the human psyche can react to the stimuli of healthy food just as it does to unhealthy ones.

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