Obesity researcher tests new way to steer people away from eating unhealthy foods

FOX 32 NEWS - An obesity researcher says he might have uncovered a new way to steer people away from eating unhealthy foods. He did it by tinkering with vending machines.

Brad Applehans of Rush Medical Center is an obesity researcher. Over the last year and half, he's been trying to figure out if making people wait just a little longer for their junk food might influence them to buy a healthier alternative.

“Humans have a strong preference for immediate gratification, so when you have to wait for something, it makes it less desirable. So we wanted to see if we could use that principle to nudge people towards the healthier options,” Appelhans said.

Appelhans says vending machines are perfect for research like this. With help from the Ace Vending company, three machines at the Rush Medical Center were set up to collect data and that data was downloaded and analyzed on a weekly basis.

A clock and small video screen warned customers they'd have to wait an additional 25 seconds if they went for the junk foods. All of them were near the top of the vending machine and would fall onto a platform that would delay their delivery.

Appelhans found that the delayed gratification did steer some customers toward healthier options, although offering discounts in price, along with the delays, seemed to work best.

“So it’s really hard to nudge people, in general. But once you implement these time delays, and maybe combine it with pricing manipulations, you can have a pretty meaningful and consistent effect,” Appelhans said.

Appelhans hopes his findings can be applied in other areas, for example, in fast food settings. But for that research, well, we'll all have to wait a little longer.

Appelhans says vending machines are one of the most prevalent sources of junk food. His research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.