Reducing meat consumption by playing with the affective quality of online restaurant reviews
By Camila Lanz and Gerard Loosschilder
Meat consumption is deeply rooted in most cultures. Some attribute it to evolution, making meat consumption inevitable. In the words of Pobiner (2003), “it takes a lot of time and energy to digest plants, and we could instead invest energy into growing big brains” by eating meat. In recent years, however, vast amounts of evidence show that the high caloric content in meat is something that does more harm than good, as human evolution has led to unprecedented levels of sedentarism. Also, extensive meat consumption is known to have a harmful impact on animal welfare, the use of resources and the environment in general. Yet people keep on consuming meat. Why?
“My experience with Nudge Lab has been very useful for completing my thesis. Through this project I have been able to give life to my ideas on how to nudge people in an online setting, and I am glad to endorse it as a project worth doing in the future. I believe with a well-developed infrastructure this can become a platform for future students to design and put to the test their nudging ideas. – Camila Lanz
Many reasons are related to a human’s bounded rationality, leading people to use heuristics to make decisions. Heuristics are meant to reduce effort when making decisions, and heuristics can result in biases, such as consuming meat when we know it’s harmful. People have been eating meet for generations; it is intertwined with our diets and favorite national dishes. Salience and availability have resulted in culturally-accepted yet biased thoughts on what a complete meal looks like. A representativeness heuristic leads to stereotyping men as “meat lovers”, tying meat consumption to a perception of masculinity. Or there is a corporate barrier; a matter of vested interest: discouraging meat consumption is against the interests of the meat industry, so investments are made to improve the image of meat to consumers. The abundance of information defending meat consumption results in wide acceptance without hesitation. Stunning is the absence of cognitive dissonance: we care about animals but also eat them. We solve this dissonance by “attributing animals lesser minds and reducing their perceived capacity to suffer” (Loughnan et. al 2014), rather than adopting a vegetarian diet and avoiding the meat paradox altogether (Loughnan et. al 2014).
It is Camila Lanz’s goal to reduce meat consumption by discouraging it while eating out in restaurants. Knowing that people consume meat due to the use of heuristics, we cannot expect them to engage in an effortful decision process to stop eating meat. Therefore, we must make it easier for them to not choose meat. This is where nudge interventions come to play. Camila wants to use nudging to tackle the problem and apply its principles on review sites for restaurant selection. That’s because review sites seem to be an excellent place to discourage the choice of a restaurant on its ‘meat profile’ – the prominence of meat in the description and display of the restaurant or of its menus.
Several studies have been made on the field of healthier food choices using nudge interventions, but none had been made in a review site online setting. The purpose of Camila’s study is to attract people towards restaurants that offer less meat in their overall menu, increasing the probability that once at the restaurant they will consume less meat in their meal. The nudge intervention strategy that Camila wishes to pursue is based on the Affect heuristic: emotions are triggered to attract people’s attention and influence decisions in a desired direction.
Nudge 1: better visuals for restaurants with less meat
Enhanced images are used to attract attention towards restaurants that offer less meat. Restaurants with many meat alternatives maintain the subpar picture one would normally find on a restaurant review site. For example, in the control group, where all restaurants have the same type of picture, this Japanese restaurant has the common picture on the left, while in the test group it has the enhanced picture on the right, supposedly making the website visitor feel more positive about the restaurant. It could nudge them towards selecting this restaurant.
Control versionCommon picture of a Japanese restaurant.
Test versionHypothetically better picture of a Japanese restaurant.
Nudge 2: prolific descriptions of restaurants with less meat
This nudge uses the restaurant descriptions to attempt to nudge consumers. In the test condition, the descriptions of low-meat restaurants include words with positive affect. For example, where the common description in the control group may read “come visit us for gourmet Vegetarian cuisine, in a modern, natural wood setting”, the enhanced description reads “come visit us and enjoy our gourmet Vegetarian cuisine, made with the freshest organic ingredients, in a modern, natural wood setting.” The latter description is meant to make the consumer have a more positive impression of this restaurant.
In nudge 3, both nudges were put in place: low-meat restaurants have an enhanced picture and description. In the control group, restaurants have pictures and descriptions of a quality typical for review sites.
In the experiment, participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions, each leading to a different experimental review site. On the site, they evaluated 16 restaurants and placed a fictional reservation on the restaurant of their choice. Later they were asked a few questions regarding their food preferences, behavior, and demographics. Results of Camila’s experiment will be available by the end of June 2017.