Stories of research, nutrition, and nature

Archive for October, 2012

ACR Conference

The last long trip on this continent this year: Association for Consumer Research North American conference. It was held this year in Vancouver, BC, October 4-7. Like Vancouver, the conference was very international, with more than 1000 participants and a large number of them outside North America. In terms of fields that were represented, consumer behavior and marketing seemed to be the most common. Or perhaps they were the fields where people tend to use clear labels on themselves. “Don’t put yourself in a box – research is research and it’s all interesting.”

Weather couldn’t have been more perfect.

Although the focus was consumer behavior, there was a solid awareness about the usefulness of technology as a tool and a source of data. In particular, Jeff Inman emphasized in his presidential speech how important mobile consumer research already is and will be in the near future. Doing research with mobile devices makes it possible to gather information real-time and about topics that earlier were only possible to study through surveys or observations. Data about everyday, moment-to-moment behaviors are now much more accessible.

Highlights from Presentations

I was impressed by the consistent high quality of the presentations – most of the sessions were really interesting and engaging. That shouldn’t be surprising, though, since the acceptance rate for presentations was around 20%. I had a poster about improving adherence in online habit change interventions. It attracted a reasonable amount of attention, but I think most people were a bit weary after the long day, since the poster session was held Friday evening.

Anyways, highlights from some of the most interesting presentations:

Food and nutrition

  • Becoming a Mindful Eater: Improving Food Choices through Emotional Ability Training (Jonathan Hasford, University of Kentucky). The researchers demonstrated that emotional abilities can be trained, and increases in emotional intelligence decrease calorie intake in comparison to more traditional nutrition training group. Results were maintained after three months. I found this really interesting and could see similarities to the ACT framework, where mindfulness training increases emotional awareness and helps a person to recognize the influence of emotions and external cues on their eating behavior (and other behaviors as well). Perhaps we could use emotional intelligence scale in some of our studies?
  • When Soft Drink Taxes Don’t Work: A Comparative Study (Andrew Hanks, Cornell). Drew and others from Food & Brand Lab found that putting a tax on soft drinks has unintended consequences: the effects of soda purchases are insignificant, and some shoppers actually switch to buying more beer and fruit juices, increasing the overall calories they purchase (although maybe they get a little bit more nutrients in?). Hence, only taxing soda probably isn’t the best approach in trying to decrease the fluid calories purchased.
  • Increasing Serving Size Increases Amount Consumed (Chris Dubelaar, Bond University, Australia). This study tested whether people would eat more than their previous maximum consumption, if the serving size increased still. They measured the maximum consumption of pasta based on a sample (over one pound) and then doubled the serving size from that for the participants of the study. They found that people still ate about 22% more than the earlier maximum amount had been. This unfortunate finding means that people try to eat at least half of the serving, no matter how big the serving is.
  • Taming Temptations: Targeting Self-Control Increases Healthy Food Behaviors (Janet Schwartz, Tulane University, USA). Simple prompts such as asking people if they want to downsize their portion is more effective than nutrition or calorie labeling, and doesn’t leave downsizers feeling deprived or hungry. Also, a study about pre-commitment done with Discovery Health Soutch Africa found that asking people to pre-commit to healthy purchases and receive a discount if they really purchased healthily really increased the share of healthy purchases.

Physical activity

  • Exercising to the lowest common denominator (Leslie John, Harvard). This study looked into how peer behavior influences our own behavior. They gave employees of a company walkstations (sort of treadmills that can be used while working) and assigned them into one of three conditions: solo (information of only own performance), duo (information of one other’s performance), and quad (information of three others’ performance). Not surprisingly, performance declined in all three groups over time. But what was perhaps surprising is that decline was slowest in solo group. In other words, people who saw how others in their group behaved sank down to the level of the lowest performer. At least in this context, it would be better to compare just against own behavior (maintain the level of walkstation use) than let people know that others aren’t doing as much.

Social influences

  • Blowing Out Candles to Make Ours Burn Brighter (Cait Lamberton, Uni. Pittsburgh). The findings of this research could be seen to be a bit depressing: basically, we all blow out other people’s candles, that is, try to sabotage others’ achievements. But our level of self-esteem has an effect on whether the sabotage is covert or overt. People with high self-esteem are more sensitive to ego threats, and therefore resort to covert harming (they don’t want other people to know that they’re envious). People with low self-esteem, in contrast, lack resources to cope and are more prone to overt harming and “sour grapes” effect (“I wouldn’t have wanted it anyway”).
  • Facebook Therapy? (Eva Buechel, Uni. Miami). Emotionally unstable individuals have a need to share emotional experiences, but they often lack the close social network that could give support. They have a high need to share, but low social skills. The researchers did a series of studies on Facebook and found that Facebook status updates can work as an emotion regulation strategy for emotionally unstable people. That is, they can release their emotions on Facebook and it helps in affect regulation, even without actual responses. Anticipation of social support may be enough for benefits.

Even though I was a captivated member of the audience at the presentations about experimental research, I think that I gathered most food for thought from the doctoral consortium and the sessions about methodology and broader issues in the field. Summarizing some of these things in the rest of the post.

Building Bridges – Interdisciplinary Research

Next year’s ACR president Linda Price (Uni. Arizona) pointed out that ACR community is multidisciplinary, but not interdisciplinary enough: people still operate inside their own boxes and don’t reach out to other fields as much as would be beneficial. Akshay Rao from University of Minnesota continued on the same topic with this equation:

Research = Curiosity = Opposite of ignorance

When research is driven by curiosity, it will almost inevitably have to become interdisciplinary. However, it is also scary to step outside the box. Ethnographic studies have shown that increased diversity threatens community. Moreover, interdisciplinary work is challenging to get published, because unidisciplinary journals and reviewers often don’t understand other disciplines.

Do we want to let fear or curiosity to direct the paths our research takes? There is strength in working together. Think about sustainability, poverty, obesity, or communicable diseases. They affect everyone around the globe and need many curious brains and lively hands to work on them. The trick is to find people who are good at different things and use the pool of skills to do something extraordinary.

Besides, the things that people outside academia are interested in usually stem from interdisciplinary research. The novel, non-obvious, and useful findings are based on interest in phenomena, not the method. Keep the focus of the study on behavior and use all tools available.

Not to forget that making it personal, that is, focusing on issues that really matter to you, helps to maintain interest and stay invested. That’s why I veer towards projects which deal with mental well-being, stress management, emotional eating or such. Just need to remember that creativity is killed by stress.


Opening plenary was dedicated to discussion about integrity in research. Apparently, last year some well-known researchers in the field were discovered to have fabricated their results by cherry-picking data. The plenarists pointed out several problematic issues in the nature of academia, including tenure process that pushes for publishing as much as possible, the urge to write a good story from muddy data, and the desire to make broad generalizations from a selected and biased sample (most often, undergrads). Job security, money, and fame can sometimes seem tempting enough to justify some shortcuts and white lies, right? Nope.

As Jeff Inman, the current president of ACR, stated: the game is not publishing. The game is research, and publishing is the outcome. Research should be done on important topics, driven by desire to understand what’s happening and why, and to explain it to others as clearly as possible.

Telling Stories

Writing a good scientific paper is like telling a good story. It needs to have a clear focus, plot structure, and engaging narrative. No one wants to read a story which doesn’t have consistent characters (your constructs and variables), is full of incoherent extra side plots, and characters have different names in different chapters. Ultimately, theories are just stories as well.

I think that this is one of the many reasons why it’s important to read outside one’s own field and also to read fiction: to maintain good writing skills and the feeling what a good and captivating story is.

Scientific papers are obviously not the only place where narrative power can be important in research. Health promotion initiatives can also engage the audience more strongly through narratives. Sometimes this means using testimonials, example characters and scenarios, and so on to stress the importance of healthy behaviors. Furthermore, I think that metaphors in ACT are a great example of how narratives are used to illustrate, educate and increase understanding. Stories can transport the reader/listener so that the experience is powerful, lasting, and attitude-changing.

Using Field Data

Several people, including Jonah Berger from University of Pennsylvania, said that most of the interesting ideas are usually found in everyday life. Observing, looking for intriguing data sources, getting ideas from personal interests and hobbies, and so on. Good research often has field data in addition to lab studies. People in the real world don’t really care about changes on scales (what does it mean that the scores on Bergen Burnout Index shifted from 9.7 to 6.8 in the treatment group, for example?), they care about actual behavioral changes (reduced absenteeism, for example). Field study is usually the most interesting part (especially for general audience).

Gathering field data can feel like a daunting task, but it’s worthwhile to keep in mind that one dataset can provide valuable insights from several different angles. The greatest value of field data is that this actually happened in the real world.

Transformative Consumer Research

Transformative Consumer Research (TCR) is a sub-community of ACR. Their vision is to do meaningful research so that findings have clear, relevant, practical implications. Transformative consumer research is characterized by focus on behavior, concentration on vulnerable groups, and aim to make an impact.

This is how they summarize it:

“[TCR] focuses on significant social problems and challenges presented by modern consumer society. It includes research on materialism, poverty, subsistence markets, sustainability, at-risk consumers, the role of technology, and health and nutrition, among others. Transformative consumer researchers are united in their belief that academic researchers have a duty to use their knowledge and expertise to develop research and programs aimed at increasing societal welfare.”

Hits the spot, right? “This is what I want to do”, methinks.

Dilip Soman (University of Toronto) mentioned that it is curious how governments have all sorts of economic advisors, but no behavioral advisors. He then listed three reasons why we often shy away from attempting to do research that is relevant to real-world issues:

  • Problems are overwhelmingly big. Solution: decompose them to small, testable problems.
  • Difficult to make a theoretical contribution. Solution: demonstrate in the field (ecological validity), then bring back to lab to explain the psychological process and advance theory.
  • Hard to get data. One solution: start getting the word of your research out by blogging, talking to people, giving talks at events outside academia. Convenience samples could also be expanded by respondent-driven recruitment.

Next TCR conference is May 24-25, 2013 (in Lille, France). Closer to home for us Europeans, could be a good place to go!

Some Ideas for Research

When I left the conference my brain was full of half-baked ideas and thoughts that still aren’t very well formulated. I’ll write them out here, at least that way they can potentially spark thoughts in smarter people’s brains.

One thing that I’ve been wondering for a long time is the sometimes startling absence of healthy food options at conferences which deal with health at least in some ways. At ACR, I was able to find some fruit in the morning of the first day, but afternoon coffee breaks were dominated by cookies and cupcakes.

Healthy snacks?

Has anyone done a study about conference committees and how they end up deciding the menus? For example, one presentation was about people choosing food for someone else and feelings evoked by the choice, if the chooser is slender and the other person is heavier. Perhaps something like this is happening at committees as well – people don’t want to deny sweet treats from others. Or they just want to make people feel good about being treated with delicious stuff, which will make them more likely to return next year.

Social influences and networks are also immensely interesting. I’ve been following an excellent blog called Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss for some time now. I think it’s great not only because it’s very sharply written and draws a lot from research, but also because it reveals a lot about cultural differences in how weight and beauty are perceived. For a white Finnish girl, some of the things that the blogger Erika writes about I would never have even thought of without her blog. The thing is, I can’t remember how I originally found the blog. And that is intriguing in itself: how do people find and start following blogs about health and well-being? What are the demographics, and how does the word about blogs spread?

Online communities could be a rich source of data about user-generated content. For instance, what kinds of challenges people post in SparkPeople?

And finally, I remember reading about a guy who decided to start taking pictures of himself every day. It turned out to become a journey to self-discovery and self-actualization. Could we have a study about this, to see if this kind of “self-tracking” would have a positive influence on well-being?


Research in Spotlight

NIH spotlight of Brian, shot at the Science & Engineering Festival that we were at in Washington DC in April. Good stuff.

Choice architectures and role models

I recently read about the failure of physical activity interventions for children. It seems that well-intentioned and well-designed interventions succeed in increasing children’s daily physical activity by a meager five minutes – but this increase doesn’t last past the first few weeks. Clearly, we’re missing something.

Divide between exercise and everyday physical activity has become stark. People often wonder about my willingness to walk distances that are more than a mile. Sometimes, these are the same people who go for ten-mile runs every other day. I need both in order to feel good. I spend so much time in front of a computer that whenever there’s a chance to take a few extra steps, I’ll jump for it. Sometimes literally.

Are we missing the base of the pyramid?

The problem is that the Western environment and lifestyle has become extremely aversive towards everyday physical activity. Hotels are one of the clearest examples: I’ve noticed that the fancier the hotel, the more likely it is that it’s impossible to take the stairs. The doors are locked, only to be used in case of an emergency. What if my emergency is the urge to run up the stairs? Another thing are the lengthening commutes that even kids are having nowadays. The list goes on.

Ultimately, the choice architectures around us don’t favor walking or biking. Some cities have recognised this and really started trying to change things: sidewalks, bike lanes, bikeshare programs, free or extremely cheap public transportation.

Attitudes also need to change. This is from the NY Times article:

“Kids naturally love to run around and play,” Dr. Booth said. “But they’re just not doing it as much now. And we don’t know why. So what we really need to understand is, what’s happening to our kids that makes them quit wanting to play?”

Well, duh. They grow, start to think they they need to become adults, all serious and collected. Grown-ups don’t sprint, skip, wrestle, piggyback each other, do somersaults or anything that causes them to sweat and become out of breath, unless they are in the strictly specified context of exercise. That’s just plain silly. Fortunately there are exceptions, people who are self-confident and energetic enough to be active themselves, no matter what the context is. They’re the proper role models!

How to change choice architectures and role models? What kind of a role can technology play? I’ve started to think that its strength is in the ability to connect people, to help them become aware of other ideas and movements in real-time. The question that’s often asked, for a good reason, in my field is: “Will people who need wellness technologies use them?” The answer tends to be “couldn’t care less”.

So if they don’t care, do they really NEED the technologies, or are we just trying to create the need? The question should rather be formed in the following way: “What do people need and how can technology serve that need?” And that’s why it would be so extremely important to actually go to the people and figure out what their real needs and desires are.


Troublesome news about school lunches that follow the new nutritional guidelines in the US:

  • Kids throw fruit and vegetables away and buy junk from vending machines instead. They claim that they go hungry with new school lunches, even though calorie content is about the same.
  • Kids who qualify for free school lunches sometimes don’t take it at all because they want to avoid social stigma. Well-off kids take pictures of them and post them on Facebook, ridiculing their economic status. As a result, many kids go hungry and don’t get the nutrients they need.

I do hope that the first problem is solved with a little bit of time. Seems to be a full-blown manifestation of psychological reactance and initial rebellion. Also, it would be great to get rid of those vending machines at schools. Choice architectures – if it’s available and accessible, it will be eaten. Smarter Lunchrooms stuff needs to be used to make those vegetables seem less “gross”.

But it is sad to know that tons of vegetables and fruit are going to waste. Darned cool kids and their poisoned taste buds.

The second problem, technology-mediated social ostracism, is even more heartbreaking. Having been a target for ostracism in my middle school days, I feel lucky to have survived my teenage years before social media. It’s bad enough to hear derisive comments about one’s value as a person during school hours, but I imagine it must be thousand times worse to see those comments posted online with pictures that may or may not be photoshopped. Even if you have a tough skin, it is quite a lot to handle. Especially if there is really nothing you can do about the circumstances.

Obviously it’s not social media that’s to blame. It’s just a tool that can be used for good or bad. The troubling part is the phenomenon of bullying in itself. I feel that children should learn to understand and respect where food really comes from, and learn to understand and respect their fellow human beings as well. All horrid deeds in human history have started with someone deciding that they are better than other people.

In Finland, it’s free lunch for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. It doesn’t solve all problems, but at least it makes people more equal.