Researchers from the University of Central Florida have found that a simple household item most people use several times a day can be used to encourage people to eat healthier - mirrors.
In a new study to be published in the upcoming inaugural edition of Journal of the Association of Consumer Research, the researchers found placing mirrors in a dining room drives people to make healthier eating choices.
Led by assistant professor of marketing Ata Jami, the research team had 185 undergraduates from the university take part in a taste test in which they could choose between trying a fruit salad or a chocolate cake. After making their choice, the students tasted the chocolate cake or fruit salad in one of two rooms - one with mirrors, the other without. Those who tasted the cake in the mirrored room generally found it to not be as tasty as those who tasted it in the room without mirrors. The presence of mirrors did not have any effect on the reported taste of the healthier fruit salad.
“A glance in the mirror tells people more than just about their physical appearance,” says Jami. “It enables them to view themselves objectively and helps them to judge themselves and their behaviors in a same way that they judge others.”
According to the study, mirrors "encourage you to evaluate yourself in accordance with perceived standards of social correctness". When one looks in the mirror to find oneself violating these standards, it leads to feelings of discomfort. Therefore eating unhealthy foods in the presence of a mirror will induce feelings of discomfort and guilt, thus lowering the perceived taste of the food.
Eating healthy food is not seen as breaking social standards of correctness however, so the presence of mirrors will not raise any feelings of discomfort and corresponding decreases in perceived taste. The survey notes this "phenomenon only occurs if the diners choose their own food", as choice places the responsibility for their favored meal with no one but themselves.
Jami says that although the mirrors only altered the perceived taste of unhealthy foods, rather than making people feel less inclined to eat the cake when mirrors are present, she hopes the discomfort experienced by watching oneself eat unhealthy food will lead to "behavioral modification over time.”
The general hypothesis is that people choose to eat unhealthy food because they believe it will taste better than healthy alternatives. By making unhealthy foods seem less tasty by inducing discomfort in the eater, Jami believes they will be less inclined to choose the unhealthy alternative in the future as a means of avoiding the previously experienced discomfort.
Jami says this observation is important because it could be possible to prompt better eating habits not only at home, but also in work cafeterias, schools, and restaurants by strategically placing mirrors in positions where diners can see themselves.
She says that by showing how subtly modifying eating behavior can be changed with mirrors, her team hopes it will help slow the rising rates of obesity by reminding diners the tastiness of unhealthy foods is severely hampered when one has to, consciously or subconsciously, watch themselves eat.