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By Eller College

Can we trick ourselves into eating healthier foods or stepping on that treadmill?

Physically approaching a product may cause consumers to view it in a more favorable light, according to a new paper by Eller College assistant professor of marketing Jesper Nielsen and Aparna Labroo of the University of Chicago.

“More and more work is being done that illustrates how strongly the body affects the mind,” Nielsen says. “It is generally accepted that people tend to avoid things they dislike and approach things they like. For example, children push away their veggies but can’t get close enough to the candy store window. We wondered if the opposite might also be true: might people infer that they don’t like a product when they find themselves avoiding it, and might they infer a preference for products they approach?”

The answer is a resounding yes, according to a series of three experiments the pair designed to separate the effect of a person’s true attitudes from those inferred from sensations of approaching or avoiding the product. 

In the first experiment, participants who imagined pulling an otherwise unappealing can of grasshoppers in curry sauce towards themselves were willing to pay twice as much for the product as those who were asked to evaluate it from a distance.

The results have intriguing implications. “It demonstrates that when we as consumers assume that we like a product or service, we may be responding in part to actions we have taken towards that product,” Nielsen explains. “When we accept free samples in the grocery store or agree to receive emails from a clothing retailer, it is likely that these actions subconsciously change our evaluations of the sampled products or clothing brands.”

Concurrently, consumers avoid activities and behaviors that are perceived to be difficult and aversive, such as diet and exercise, even though the behaviors are beneficial in the long term. “Our research suggests that part of these aversions stem from people’s own bodily sensations,” Nielsen says. “One way for people to overcome these aversions is to trick the mind by simulating approach, for example, encouraging the child to reach for the veggies.”

Not that the aversion will go away all together, he hastens to point out. “The child might just dislike the carrots less,” he says with a laugh.