“We found that when people who are sad are exposed to pictures of indulgent food or indulgent words, their sadness highlights the negative consequences of indulging and encourages them to indulge less,” said researcher and graduate student Anthony Salerno and Juliano Laran, Ph.D., of the University of Miami, and Chris Janiszewski, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, in a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
The three conducted a series of five experiments to study the behavior of people who were exposed to either indulgent or neutral words or images and then made to feel sad.
In one study, participants were asked to look at a series of print ads that featured pleasurable foods like pizza and chocolate cake or to look at neutral ads featuring products like washing machines and electric cars.
Immediately after viewing the print ads, they were asked to complete a writing task that made them feel sad. At the end of the study, they were given the opportunity to eat indulgent foods like M&Ms or chocolate chip cookies.
The researchers found that when people were first exposed to pleasurable information and then made to feel sad, they decreased their consumption of indulgent foods. They also found that these participants were more likely to indicate how consuming indulgent foods could lead to health problems.
In contrast, when people were exposed to neutral information and made to feel sad, they increased their consumption of indulgent foods.
“Our research has important implications for consumers, particularly as obesity remains a major health concern in the United States,” the researchers noted.
“For brands looking to understand what triggers help and hinder people in their ability to eat healthy foods, we provide insight into when sadness might aid consumers in becoming less prone to indulging in unhealthy foods on a daily basis.”