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

Listed author(s):
  • John A. List
  • Anya Savikhin Samek

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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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w20132.pdf
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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 20132.

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Date of creation: May 2014
Publication status: published as 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.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:20132
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  1. John Cawley & Joshua A. Price, 2011. "Outcomes in a Program that Offers Financial Rewards for Weight Loss," NBER Chapters,in: Economic Aspects of Obesity, pages 91-126 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Tanjim Hossain & John A. List, 2012. "The Behavioralist Visits the Factory: Increasing Productivity Using Simple Framing Manipulations," Management Science, INFORMS, vol. 58(12), pages 2151-2167, December.
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