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1) At the salad bar, you don’t have to reach far for the broccoli, but you do have to for the shredded cheese. The chicken can be back there too because you’re likely to reach for it anyway.

2) For every food offered at the salad bar, you have to use tongs instead of spoons to move it to your plate. (Except, perhaps, for the asparagus if it’s not sliced.)

3) When you’re ordering off a posted menu, the fried chicken and fries are buried in the middle of the list while the oven-roasted turkey is at the top and wilted greens are at the bottom.

From two new papers in the Journal of Decision Making (pdfs for 1) and 2) are here, and 3) is here).

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The state of New York, with help from Cornell’s Brian Wansink, puts nudge principles to work in its cafeterias

In New York, the Department of Health decided to do some research. How much, it wondered, would a school need to cut its prices for apples, oranges and bananas to increase sales by 5 percent over a year? Brian Wansink…soon discovered he had been hired to answer the wrong question. Price wasn’t the problem. It was the presentation.

In the school cafeterias Wansink surveyed, whole fruits were displayed in steel bins in dimly lighted areas of the lunch line. Wansink went to discount store T.J. Maxx and bought a cheap wire fruit rack. He found an extra desk lamp, which he used to shine on the fruit. “Sales of fruit in one school went up 54 percent. Not in a semester: by the end of the second week,” Wansink said. “It would have gone up faster, but they kept running out of fruit.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is planning to award $2 million in research grants for federal food policy inspired by behavioral economics. Full story in the Washington Post.

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1) Yale’s Dean Karlan says it’s not a surprise that taxes on junk food are more effective than subsidies for healthy food at changing consumer habits. It’s about loss aversion: “People are just more responsive to price increases than decreases.”

2) Colleges are trying Trayless Tuesdays. Is yours?

3) San Francisco has adopted a public school matching algorithm similar to the one mentioned in the school choice chapter of Nudge. Hat tip: Market Design, which notes “the nice thing is that the underlying choice architecture will make it safe for parents to state their true preferences however the priorities are adjusted.”

4) Pepsi is cutting sugary drinks from schools around the world.

5) More women are asking surgeons to remove a healthy breast along with a cancerous breast, even though removing the healthy breast doesn’t change their odds of survival, says the New York Times. Why? “But women who have opted for the procedure say it’s not about the statistics. Once they receive a breast cancer diagnosis, they never again want to experience the stress of a mammogram or biopsy.”

Addendum: A pilot project using Netflix like technology to predict which patients need checkups and send them email alerts. Hat tip: Marginal Revolution.

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1. Foreign Policy traces the history of behavioral economics with this timeline in the latest issue.

2. One hundred and twenty six of the richest 300 colleges (based on endowment size) have curtailed cafeteria tray use. According to the group rating the environmental policies of colleges, the University of Chicago’s dining practices earn an A.

Dining Services purchases 20 percent of its food from local suppliers and contracts with a local dairy. The university is currently changing its dining hall format so that all meals will be served on reusable dishware. The university also offers reusable cups, mugs, and shopping bags.

3. A Mac application, Freedom, that disables networking on an computer for up to eight hours at a time, freeing you from the “distractions of the internet” and allowing you to do something better with your time.

Hat tip: Chad Valasek.

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Richard Thaler appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America last week. As part of the package, the correspondent ran an unscientific experiment of the breakfast buffet table at a local office, tweaking the presentation of the food to see the effects on eating habits. Elevating fruit on display platters is a good idea. Putting mirrors in front of the donuts works even better. The clip, which lasts about 5 minutes, is here.

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Cornell has launched a new web site,, for school lunch administrators and managers that may put us one step closer to a world of nudge cafeterias. David Just, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Applied Economics and Management explains the idea to US News:

Rather than advocating outright bans of certain foods, its goal is to “design sustainable lunchrooms that guide smarter choices.” The key word there is “guide.” Simply replacing pizza with whole-wheat flatbreads and fries with roasted sweet potatoes doesn’t allow kids to learn how to make real-world choices, says David Just…”We set it up so that everything is available and the kids are enabled to see how to make decisions,” he says. Making those decisions, he says, leads to good habits.

Among the ideas are 1) Separate cash only lanes for desserts and soft drinks; 2) Renaming vegetables (think “X-ray Vision Carrots”) or simply describing healthy foods in richer detail (think “rich vegetable medley soup” instead of “vegetable soup.” Anyone who does not appreciate the power of naming probably doesn’t eat out much. However, not all names appear to be effective. For example, calling an item “Food of the Day” doesn’t spark much of an appetite; 3) Shrinking the size of plates in the a la carte line in order to make food portions look larger, and therefore a better value.

For a related article with a headline we love, check out “When Nudging in the Lunch Line Might be a Good Thing,” in this month’s Amber Waves from the USDA. Among the more interesting observations is the long length of time (relatively speaking) that students spend in line at lunch cafeteria: 5 minutes out of a 30-minute lunch period. A long time in check-out line can expose one to more temptations , very few of which are probably going to be healthy.

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Some readers who have liked the cafeteria metaphor at the beginning of Nudge, have wondered what an actual Nudge cafeteria would look like. Here are a few possibilities:

1) Tables for two. People tend to eat more in groups than when they are alone because they mimic the eating habits of others. But there is some evidence that the amount of food someone consumes is a linear function of the number of people sitting with them.

2) A discount for calling in your order from upstairs (or wherever your office happens to be). Calling in your order serves as a commitment strategy for eating healthy, rather than being tempted by the french fries or the cookies as you try to find the salad bar. The discount would simply be added as a traditional incentive to entice more people to take advantage of it. To limit impulse checkout purchases, pick-up would probably have to be at a separate window.

3) Brighter lights. Environmental factors of all kinds like noise, smells, temperature, and lighting are known to affect food consumption. Brighter lights limits limit the length of time people spend at a meal, but they are superior (in terms of discomfort) to alternatives like foul odors or loud music. People might be more likely to take their food back to their desk, which might even increase their daily productivity.

4) Keep the popular desserts, lose the unpopular ones. One of behavioral economists’ favorite violations of classical economic theory is how a choice between A and B if affected by the introduction of alternative C. Classical economists say C, whether it is there or not, shouldn’t matter when someone chooses between A and B. This frequently seems not to be the case. The more enticing unhealthy alternatives there are at the dessert bar competing with hot and cold lunch items, the lower the value of the salad compared to the burger, thus making the healthy decision less likely. So as not to incite too many charges of heavy-handed paternalism, only the least popular desserts would be removed from the menu. It is hard to know whether the unpopular items were flatly unappetizing or just unappetizing compared to other desserts. To help find out, dessert policy would be open to continuous revision through good feedback loops.

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…it would be like this one in the Netherlands. Run by scientists at the Wageningen University and Research Center (with willing and fully informed diners), the recently opened cafeteria has already generated some preliminary findings:

Put the same coffee in four mugs of different colors and ask people which is stronger. Men likely will point to the brown mug. Women are less likely to be fooled.

For months, he said, customers bought milk from a vending machine. One day, the label was changed to indicate the milk was organic — prompting some people to comment that it tasted funny.

People eat more when food is served on a big plate, less on a small one.

Attitudes change when freshly cut flowers are on the table.

One of the first academic papers to emerge out of the cafeteria is in the new issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. Researchers studying willpower found a considerable level of self-control among people who said they wanted to eat healthy snacks. Only a quarter of them actually chose unhealthy snacks. Of course, half the diners said they wanted to eat unhealthy – which they did! That still leaves plenty of room for a few good nudges. (Gated copy here)

Hat tip: Philip Frankenfeld.


A couple months back, we blogged about two experiments where trays were removed from cafeterias in order to reduce waste. Looks like the idea is catching on at “dozens” of universities, including New York University, Minnesota, Florida, and North Carolina. The typical effect is a 50 percent reduction in food waste.

(At NYU this) fall, one dining hall that serves 1,000 meals a day will be trayless. By the end of the first semester, 50% of the campus will be trayless, says Owen Moore, director of dining. Food waste has been cut from 4.03 ounces per tray to less than 2.37 ounces.

According to a survey of 92,000 students by catering conglomerate Aramark, 79 percent supported the idea of trayless cafeterias. Aramark likes the idea too because saving food in many cafeterias – think dorms with meal plans – means saving money.


Santosh Anagol visits an Ikea cafeteria, and it does not seem like the one in the opening chapter of Nudge. This cafeteria is built to nudge our indulgences.

I had dinner at IKEA tonight. They have a cafeteria where you take a tray and add foods you want as you move through the line. You pay separately for each item you take.

Most cafeterias place dessert at the end. The IKEA cafeteria, however, places dessert at the beginning. I’m guessing the reason is that people are more likely to take dessert when their tray is empty than when it’s full. Dessert seems like less of an extravagance if it fills an empty tray than when it crowds on with the main meal.

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