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Working Like a Machine? Maybe That’s Why You Ate That KitKat

New research shows the impact of human portrayals on health outcomes.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to not take normalcy for granted. Whether it’s working from an office and enjoying time with coworkers or maintaining a regular gym routine, these seemingly simple things can make a world of difference for our well-being and health.

Once the pandemic took hold many were, and still are, staying, working and (attempting to) exercise from home to protect themselves and others. This has created a drastic increase of teleconferencing meetings and a major adjustment for sustaining healthy habits, as many of us found ourselves reaching for less healthy food options in-between Zoom meetings. This begs the question — could teleconferencing and unhealthy eating be related?

To put this to the test, I worked with Andrea Weihrauch of Amsterdam Business School to dig into the nuances of connections between technology and obesity and particularly, how specific representations of humans through teleconferencing and marketing can cause us to eat unhealthily.

Let’s zoom out and examine this from a historical perspective. To combat obesity, governments and marketers have long invested a great number of resources to encourage us to make food choices using our head instead of our heart (e.g., “Eat to fuel your body, not to feed your emotions”). One popular strategy employed to promote this head-based approach to food is to portray humans as machines and to depict human body parts using mechanical components. Just like advanced teleconferencing devices, these illustrations tend to make us look like, and feel like, machines. But does making us look like machines really help us eat better?

Artem Popov/Shutterstock
This digitized version of a human face is an example of what new technology may make consumers look and feel like in messaging.
Source: Artem Popov/Shutterstock

In our forthcoming paper in the Special Issue of the Journal of Marketing, we found that contrary to common belief, representing humans like machines creates both a positive and a negative effect on food choices, depending on our chronic level of eating self-efficacy, or confidence in our ability to choose healthy food. This means that if you tend to choose food using your head (cognition) and not heart (emotion), seeing advertisements or devices that portray humans like machines can remind you that choosing food with your head is indeed important. This, in turn, will empower you to eat healthier.

Conversely, if you tend to struggle with choosing food using your head and often succumb to emotional eating, you may fall into a repeating trap. Seeing advertisements or devices that portray humans like machines will backfire, because these remind you of an unattainable standard, creating in turn even more stress and leading to overeating. We believe that this is a critical dark side of these human-as-machine marketing or educational materials, as the very segment that these communications aim to educate is the one that does not benefit from this approach.

For instance, in one study, we let half of the participants watch a video of a virtual telepresence device that made them look like machines and moved it around a room in a robotic manner. The other half watched the same video of a virtual telepresence device that made them look like humans and it moved around the room in a natural, human way. Pre-test verified that the former video indeed made people feel more like machines than the latter one.

After watching the 45-second video, participants went through filler questions and read a short introduction about a new yogurt company. They were told that the researchers had agreed to conduct a market study for this company to assess their preferences for yogurts and were able to choose one out of nine yogurts to sample. These yogurts differed in level of healthiness, ranging from 80 to 256 calories, with an increase of 22 calories between each choice.

The results showed that whether people chose healthier or less healthy yogurt was jointly determined by the video they watched and their chronic level of eating self-efficacy. Participants with high eating self-efficacy selected healthier yogurt after viewing the human-as-machine teleconferencing video and the opposite was true for those with low eating self-efficacy. Interestingly, the human-as-machine depiction reminded the self-efficacious to exercise their head when choosing food, but those lacking in the respect didn’t find this expectation achievable.

In other studies, we replicated the same results with different health education stimuli portraying humans as a factory-type machines, and mobile applications that morphed faces with mechanistic components. After arriving at the same results using these different stimuli, we identified two solutions. First, to help people feel that they actually have good levels of eating self-efficacy, and second to accompany human-as-machine portrayals with “intervention messaging” reassuring consumers they’re capable of leaning into head over heart when making food choices.

 Digital Storm/Shutterstock
Instead of thinking of your body as a machine, it's important to keep your humanity in check to arrive at optimal health outcomes.
Source: Digital Storm/Shutterstock

To test, we distributed flyers depicting a human-as-machine visual with and without an intervention message placed at a university-based cafeteria. This cafeteria offered a wide variety of entrée choices, including a salad and soup bar, international bowls, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, and a grill station. We photographed student and faculty meals after they received the flyers, and coded these pictures by healthiness. Our findings reveal that the intervention helped consumers with low eating self-efficacy make healthier lunch choices that day, compared to lack of intervention messaging. As expected, there was no effect of the intervention message on those with high eating self-efficacy who likely already felt that turning to their head when choosing food came naturally to them.

We hope this research empowers people, pandemic or not, to make conscious decisions when choosing food and to become more aware of the subtle influences of their new lifestyle (e.g., teleconferencing meetings) and the marketing messages targeting them. Next time you’re on your tenth Zoom call of the day or browsing the grocery store in PPE, we hope you keep this research in mind to make choices that feed your body, mind and well-being in positive and sustainable ways.

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