But after several months of vending machine use in heavily trafficked areas in public and office spaces in Chicago, the team found that the machines saw a 3-to-5-percent shift toward healthier food. The change is small but possibly consequential were it applied across 1.3 million vending machines in the U.S. with $4 billion in annual sales, of which the top 20 best-selling “snacks” are candy, pastries, and chips.
The team presented their findings today at the annual conference of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. If they are well received, a next step could be partnership with vending companies. I asked Appelhans why any vending company would even consider adopting a technology that effectively serves as a barrier between the product and the customer.
But after more than 36,000 transactions, it turned out that barrier didn’t affect sales. Maybe a few people were dissuaded by the giant stopwatch and admonishment from the machine, objecting in principle or practice to subversion of the autonomy we are taught to believe we have, but slightly fewer sales ultimately didn’t mean less revenue. Some people might even prefer a vending machine that’s helping them make a decision that might keep them healthy.
I haven’t used a vending machine in seven years, but Appelhans is convinced I should care about this concept because it’s not really about vending machines. “You can influence vending machine snacks, sure, but more interesting is how do you use that principle in other settings,” he said. “Potentially a fast-food place or cafeteria. The best imaginable situation would be at a supermarket, where perhaps there's a way of collecting healthier options really easily and being able to pay for them really quickly, maybe bypassing a line.”
For example, if your cart met a certain criteria for healthiness, he posits, maybe you get to go in an express lane. Being the cart inspector would be an amazing job. Or maybe the horrible foods are on a tall shelf, and to get them you have to climb a long ladder?
In the immediate term, if someone wanted to apply this concept outside of hoping for hypothetical coercive vending machines or dangerous grocery stores, he recommends setting up your day-to-day environment so that healthy foods are more immediately accessible than junk food. If you don’t buy it, you can’t eat it, so never shop hungry. If you have to keep junk in the house for some reason, don’t make it extremely accessible. Certainly don’t keep it in your line of sight. A candy dish or cookie jar is a bad idea but can easily be converted to a radish dish or a nut jar.
The professor also had an idea I wasn’t familiar with. “Putting some tempting snacks in the freezer will create a time delay while they thaw out, and people may realize that they can settle for a healthier snack right now rather than waiting out the thaw. There are also devices one can buy which lock away temptations for a period of time. (One is called the Kitchen Safe).”
The freezer approach also works for things besides food, I imagine.