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Consumers Beware: Incidental Curiosity Can Lead to Unhealthy Eating

Portrait of a woman with question marks above her head

From movie trailers and show cliffhangers to sporting events and ads, consumers are constantly bombarded with stimuli that trigger their curiosity. The Super Bowl was no exception to that, but what most don’t know is that the curiosity triggered from these million-dollar ad campaigns can lead to unhealthy food choices.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, Chen Wang, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, explored how, why and when incidental curiosity might influence consumers’ unhealthy eating behaviors. According to Wang, most of the market research on curiosity has focused on the effects of curiosity on consumers’ information-seeking behaviors in an attempt to close the knowledge gap but not on how curiosity can affect their eating habits. 

“The premise is that curiosity will prompt consumers to make unhealthy food choices,” said Wang. “This is likely to occur because curiosity, as a form of cognitive deprivation, triggers a motivation to approach rewarding outcomes. Because consumers usually perceive unhealthy food as more satisfying and rewarding such reward-seeking induced curiosity encourages them to make unhealthy choices.”

In a study, a total of 147 participants were shown an ad featuring an unbranded marketing campaign for “Freedom 55,” a financial insurance company. The ad depicted an image of a young man playing the drums on a mountain with text that read: “What does your freedom look like? You tell us what. We’ll show you how.”  After seeing the ad, participants were divided into two groups, those in the incurious group received an explanation of what the ad was for. Those in the curious group were not. When asked about their food preference right after seeing the ad, those who were in the curious group expressed a greater preference for unhealthy food.

The ad featuring an unbranded marketing campaign for “Freedom 55,” a financial insurance company, that was shown to participants in the study.

However, in a separate study, Wang also found that the effect of curiosity on food choices is moderated by the nature of the missing information. “When people are curious about threatening information, they are likely to adopt an avoidance motivation, which prevents them from seeking an unhealthy food,” she said.

Prior research suggests that people avoid threatening information that may cause anxiety, disappointment or make them feel uncomfortable. For example, people may avoid getting weighed after the holidays or investors may avoid checking their financial performance when the stock market is going down. In such situations, Wang found that consumers while avoiding learning of information that may cause them distress, their preference for unhealthy food is mitigated.

The current research offers important practical insights for both consumers and marketers. Consumers can benefit from being educated that incidental exposure to curiosity cues may lead to unhealthy eating habits.

“So the next time they want to watch a show like Jeopardy that is constantly triggering curiosity, consumers should be more aware of their momentary food preference and curb their temptation to choose a high-calorie chocolate chip cookie,” said Wang.

She also points out that since obesity is a health concern in the United States, public policy makers and responsible marketers should strive to create an environment that helps consumers make healthy choices. Marketing campaigns designed to promote healthy eating should avoid applying tactics that elicit curiosity because doing so can backfire and encourage people to eat unhealthily instead.

“It’s important to make the distinction that it’s not always necessary to avoid curiosity tactics to promote a healthy eating environment,” said Wang. “If the message of the ad induces curiosity about potentially threatening information it would restrain consumers from seeking unhealthy food.”

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