Advance Ordering for Healthier Eating? Field Experiments on the Relationship between Time Delay and Meal Content

Monday, June 13, 2016: 3:00 PM
419 (Fisher-Bennett Hall)

Author(s): Eric M VanEpps; Julie Downs; George Loewenstein

Discussant: Alex Rees-Jones

Encouraging consumers to select meals in advance rather than at mealtime has been proposed as a strategy to promote healthier eating decisions, taking advantage of the improved self-control that is thought to accompany delayed decisions. In two field studies at an employee cafeteria and a third in a university setting, we examine how time delays between placing a lunch order and picking it up affect the healthfulness of that lunch. The first, a secondary data analysis, found that longer delays between placing an order and picking up the meal were associated with reductions in calorie content. The second study tested the causality of this relationship by exogenously restricting some lunch orders to be substantially delayed, leading to a marginally significant (approximately five percent) reduction in calories among delayed orders. The third study compared orders for truly immediate consumption versus orders placed in advance, and demonstrated a significant (100 calorie, or approximately ten percent) reduction in lunch calories.

Of the different possible mechanisms driving the effect of time delay on food choice, the three studies provide greatest support for an account based on hyperbolic time discounting (present-bias). In the first study, calories in lunch orders were inversely related to time delay, but unrelated to time of day, more consistent with a time discounting or temporal construal account than with one based on empathy gaps. In the second study, participants were more likely to select “low-calorie” meals when ordering in advance, yet only reduced total calorie content by a modest amount, suggesting a categorical shift in preferences more aligned with time discounting or temporal construal accounts than with an effect of hunger. Finally, the third study points to a strong effect of immediacy, again suggestive of hyperbolic time discounting. Furthermore, although hunger ratings in Study 3 were sensitive enough to differ substantially between conditions and to capture the failure to eat breakfast, they did not emerge as a significant mediator of the observed effect on lunch calories.

            Overall, these results support the efficacy of interventions that guide people to make meal-ordering decisions further in advance.