How does the past affect choices that consumers make in the present? And how can you persuade consumers to make healthier choices without them knowing? Professor of Consumer Behaviour Bob Fennis will spend the next two years studying these two questions. Lithuania has changed from a country of scarcity, conflicts and tensions into a society of abundance and freedom of choice.
Fennis is an expert in the field of influencing behaviour through subtle stimuli. He is involved as a senior researcher in two projects recently awarded funding worth over € 800,000. He will work with the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, VU University Amsterdam and KU Leuven. ‘For these projects, we’ll be studying consumers’ dietary choices and exploring ways of nudging their choices in a healthier direction. The main challenge will be finding ways of supporting healthier choices. Our aim is to embed healthier choices into consumers’ subconscious minds in future.’
In the first project (‘Life history strategies and health-related behaviours in wealthy environments’), Fennis will study the impact of past living conditions on the dietary choices people make now and in the future. Fennis: ‘To put it simply, people who have had a hard time in their past don’t always make healthy choices in later life. This manifests itself in smoking, for example, or excessive drinking, an unhealthy diet or high-risk behaviour. Conversely, if people grow up in relative peace and prosperity, such as in the Netherlands, they tend to make healthier choices further along the line.’
Lithuania has a long history of scarcity, dominance and tensions. Until the 1990s, the country was part of the former Soviet Union. It is interesting to compare the impact of that past with the situation in the Netherlands, says Fennis. ‘How does the Soviet history, marked by uncertainty, scarcity and unpredictability, affect current consumer choices? In a situation governed by scarcity and stress, a ‘take what you can get’ strategy is often the best way to survive. But this may change when the conditions alter, and people find themselves in a situation of prosperity and abundance. We want to find out how, during later life, differences in lifestyle after a youth featuring scarcity and unpredictability differ from those of a youth featuring peace and abundance. And whether there are any techniques that could nudge consumers in these situations towards making healthier choices.’
The second project in Lithuania (‘Improving the effectiveness of nudges in promoting positive health behaviours’) focuses on nudging, the act of subconsciously pushing consumers in a certain direction. ‘We’re talking about very subtle influences’, explains Fennis. ‘It could involve putting a particular product within easy reach and another one slightly further away. Or hanging signs saying “while stocks last” or “most popular choice in this supermarket” to influence consumers in their choices without them knowing. But these tiny nudges don’t always work, and can even have the opposite effect. We don’t know why this is, but it’s something we’re going to explore in the project. We want to study the motives behind the choices people make. Do they want to enjoy a product, establish their status or are they focusing on their own long-term health? And how do these motives affect the impact of subtle nudges?’
Fennis is looking forward to carrying out research in Lithuania. ‘The country is proud to offer a good research climate. Although it hasn’t been a member of the EU for very long, Lithuania has undergone some radical changes. Academia is rapidly developing the sort of research climate that we consider normal in our country and elsewhere in Western Europe. This just didn’t exist until fairly recently. The government is funding this development, as is evident from these projects, which are funded by the Research Council (the Lithuanian version of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research). The projects are due to last for two and four years respectively. I expect to publish some interesting articles and hope that we can design tools and guidelines that will help policymakers to promote health and welfare.’
Contact: Bob Fennis
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