The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

The Halo Effect: An Example of Marketing Genius that Can Derail Diets

Two food marketing tricks that prey on your guilt.

One of my Science of Willpower students snapped a photo of this snack bar at the local Whole Foods. Its name and packaging brilliantly combines two insights from the science of desire (aka, the science of blown diets):

1. The Halo Effect. Research shows that dieters significantly underestimate the calories in a food when it is labeled healthy or organic. Dieters also perceive it as being more appropriate to eat every day, even if it is obviously an indulgence (for example, in one study, the "health halo" was bestowed on organic Oreo cookies). Note that the Halo bar uses both halo-effect labels.

2. The Guilt Effect. Psychologists know that people associate guilt with pleasure. It turns out that if you just imagine feeling guilty about eating a specific food (in one study, a piece of chocolate cake), you then believe it will taste better and make you happier! I am convinced this is why so many bakeries and desserts use words like "sinful" and "guilty pleasures" in their names.

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While these effects may seem contradictory, the new Halo bar proudly exploits both at once! I have to hand it to them for both marketing chutzpah and apparently keeping up with the scientific literature. Whether you are are looking to relieve your snacking guilt by choosing a healthy, organic treat, or increase your pleasure by indulging in a sinful snack, this product has you covered.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book, which is full of strategies for overcoming temptation and reaching your goals, is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

Relevant Research:

Chandon, P., and B. Wansink. "The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions." Journal of Consumer Research 34 (2007): 301-14.

Chun, H., V. M. Patrick, and D. J. MacInnism. "Making Prudent Vs. Impulsive Choices: The Role of Anticipated Shame and Guilt on Consumer Self-Control." Advances in Consumer Research 34 (2007): 715-19.

Schuldt, J. P., and N. Schwarz. "The "Organic" Path to Obesity? Organic Claims Influence Calorie Judgments and Exercise Recommendations." Judgment and Decision Making 5 (2010): 144-50.


Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.


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