The impact of nudging and self-control on food preferences

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Maintaining a healthy eating behavior can be challenging, especially under stressful situations. Self-control plays a pivotal role in this struggle, since it allows one to resist immediate desires in pursuit of higher-level goals. The level of self-control can differ among individuals, with varying degrees of “strength”. This strength can be likened to a “muscle”, which has specific power and endurance and enables the exertion of self-control at a certain time. Power is linked to the individual situation-invariant levels of trait self-control, which enables the initial exercise of self-control at a particular moment. However, the maintenance of self-control over time is attributed to “muscle endurance”, which is represented by individual depletion sensitivity. Like a muscle that can become depleted after exertion, the exercise of self-control can deplete available cognitive resources, leading to ego depletion, decreased self-control capacity, and thus unhealthy food choices. Food recommender systems are considered effective tools for promoting healthier choices and may be seen as nudges that make healthier options more salient. Many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of recommender systems and digital nudging in influencing users’ food choices in the direction of healthier ones. Attribute frames, including positive and negative types, are popular information nudges in the health field. Nonetheless, their impact on eating behaviors remains a controversial issue. Evidence has shown that dispositional factors, such as self-control levels, may moderate the effectiveness of attribute frames.

This study aimed to examine to what extent attribute frames steer human food choices toward healthy ones, and in what way self-control levels influence that relationship. An online experiment was conducted, utilizing attribute frames as the independent variable, food choices as the dependent variable, and depletion sensitivity and trait self-control as moderating variables. Participants were randomly provided seven different food options, each of which came with an attribute framing message, to evaluate the effects of positive and negative attribute frames on healthy food choices. The Depletion Sensitivity Scale (DSS), and Brief Self-Control Scale (BSCC) were used to assess the individuals’ levels of depletion sensitivity and trait self-control, in respect. The findings revealed that positive attribute frames effectively encouraged healthy food choices, while negative frames had a relatively lower impact. Depletion sensitivity moderated the relationship between attribute frames and healthy food choices, suggesting that individuals with low depletion sensitivity were more likely to select healthy options under positive framing conditions. However, no significant moderating effect of trait self-control was observed. Lastly, the relationship between attribute frames and food preference was found to be significantly moderated by gender differences. In conclusion, this study provided evidence supporting the influence of attribute frames on healthy food choices and the moderating role of depletion sensitivity on this relationship. The significance of considering gender differences in the analysis of the effect of attribute frames on food preferences was also illustrated.