Can touch screens make you choose unhealthy food?

Contact with an image is like reaching to grab the real thing?

This article is republished with permission from China Business Knowledge, the knowledge platform of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. You may access the original article here.

There is no doubt the internet has changed our way of living. We can now do everything online: reading the news, shopping for the latest fashion, purchasing a movie ticket or the plane ticket for our next trip, and ordering meals while sitting in our office or home.

In fact, many fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC enable customers to order food online through their websites or mobile apps. Likewise, in many restaurants, iPads are offered to customers who can select their food and drinks with a touch on the digital menu.

While we are enjoying the convenience brought by technology, have we thought about how the digital world has really changed our lives, and perhaps also our choices?

The findings of the research, Computer Interfaces and the Direct-Touch Effect: Can iPads Increase the Choice of Hedonic Food?, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, offers some interesting insights.

Conducted by associate professors Shen Hao and Zhang Meng, both from CUHK Business School’s department of marketing, with their collaborator Aradhna Krishna, a professor at the University of Michigan, the study observed the increasing use of technology, such as customised mobile apps, in the domain of food choice, and asked the question: What effect do these digital devices have on customers’ choice of food?

‘When we touch the picture of cheesecake on the iPad menu, it is like reaching out to grab the cheesecake in real life’


Multiple interfaces

In five laboratory studies with groups of undergraduate students in two universities in Hong Kong, the researchers tested whether the use of different computer interfaces – with and without a touchscreen – would affect customers’ choices of food.

In other words, would there be any difference in their choices when they browsed a pictorial menu online and selected the food by touching the picture on the screen, or by clicking the mouse on a desktop?

In the first study, participants were asked to choose from a pair of products online, one hedonic (a piece of cheesecake) and one utilitarian (a bowl of green salad).

These two choices were pretested to be affectively superior (enjoyable and tempting) and cognitively superior (better for health). The group was divided into two with some participants using an iPad (touch screen), while others used a desktop with a mouse (non-touch).

To test whether the distance of choice buttons would affect their selections, another study asked participants to choose between a cup of hot chocolate and a cup of tea. But this time, the choice buttons were either next to or distant from the food items.

And to test whether non-direct touch would make a difference, another study offered some participants a stylus to choose their food on the iPad, while others were using their fingers directly to touch on the iPad. Another group was using a desktop with a mouse. The choices this time were between a food item (a bowl of ice cream) and a non-food item (a USB flash drive).

Higher purchase intention

All studies supported the researchers’ hypothesis – touching the screen facilitates the mental interaction with the product and makes consumers choose hedonic over utilitarian food items, a phenomenon which the researchers called the “direct-touch effect”.

In the study when participants were using a stylus to touch the screen, the direct-touch effect did not happen. In other words, using a stylus was the same as using a mouse to click on the screen.

“When consumers use an iPad and select the food by touching the pictures, they tend to select hedonic food over utilitarian food,” says Shen. “They would be more likely to choose a cheesecake rather than a bowl of salad,” he adds.

So what does touching the screen do to our brain?

“The direct-touch effect is similar to our natural reaction towards hedonic food – the spontaneous urge to grab it. When we touch the picture of cheesecake on the iPad menu, it is like reaching out to grab the cheesecake in real life. Such an urge, however, is less strong for utilitarian food (such as, a bowl of green salad),” explains co-author Zhang.

“So touching a hedonic food picture rather than clicking it with a mouse leads to a higher purchase intention,” she adds.

‘If computer interfaces can influence our food choices, consumers and public policy officials should be made aware of the effect’


Marketing strategies

The study has significant implications for public policy-makers and marketers, according to the professors.

“Previous research has found that touch can increase affective response towards an object and increase impulsive buying behaviour. Our study has gone a step further to show simply asking consumers to order by touching the hedonic food image would be sufficient to increase their mental simulation of grabbing the food and wanting to purchase it,” says Shen.

In a larger scope, the study has relevant implications for public policy, as different response modes can affect food choices, including unhealthy food, in our community.

“Our study result reveals that direct touch increases the choice of hedonic options. If computer interfaces can influence our food choices, consumers and public policy officials should be made aware of the effect so that they could adopt strategies to facilitate the choice of healthy food,” Shen adds.

In terms of marketing, in today’s technological world where more and more restaurants are offering touchscreen menus for efficiency, the study also implies that specific marketing strategies using different computer interfaces could be explored to yield desirable choices among consumers.


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