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Can a piece of duct tape make you eat your vegetables?

There was an interesting story on NPR this morning about consumer behavior.  NPR's Social Science Correspondent Shankar Vedantam (an amazing source for really interesting stories about human behavior) talked about an interesting study by researchers Brian Wansink, Dilip Soman, Kenneth Herbst and Collin Payne who examined consumer behavior in - of all places - the grocery store!

We all know that we should eat our fruits and vegetables but when you walk into the grocery store, it seems like it's almost impossible to make good choices.  We know we should eat a banana instead of those potato chips but those chips look so good!  The researchers took a look at the financial products industry - specifically retirement accounts - that provide a confined set of investment options.  Users make selections from a list of options and create a balanced portfolio based on their risk tolerance (hopefully!).

The researchers thought the same might apply to the grocery store.  So, they put a line of yellow duct tape in grocery carts in the US and Canada and divided the cart into partitions for fruits/vegetables and everything else.  By dividing the cart up, they provided a conscious reminder to shoppers of the existence of the grocery department.  That simple act caused consumers to fill that compartment with more fruits and vegetables than an unpartitioned cart.  They even noticed that the bigger the fruit/veggie compartment, the more shoppers filled it. 

The one exception to the rule: hungry shoppers!  As anyone can attest, going to the grocery store hungry is a whole different ball game.  When shoppers were hungry, they just went crazy and ignored the partitions. 

Consumer behavior studies provide fascinating insights into why we act the way we do (even if we don't recognize what we are doing!)  If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" and "The Call of the Mall" by retail anthropology legend Paco Underhill.  STEM is much more than just pouring chemicals into beakers in a lab. 

Using science, we can learn more about ourselves and why we do what we do!

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