The Proximity Effect – Short Tao

Average Reading Time: 2 minutes

I recently read a study (“Effect of snack-food proximity on intake in general population samples with higher and lower cognitive resource”) which had a look at the proximity effect combined with the consumption of snack-food.

Test Setup

The scientists did two tests with two more test setups within this study (on humans where n=159 and n=246). The test setup was a table with magazines and a bowl filled with 1kg of M&M’s. In the different setups, the reading material was either placed close or further away from the sitting place and the snacks within a distance of either 20 cm (near) or 70 cm (far). The scientists made several findings, of which the proximity effect is the most interesting one.

They showed that if snacks are located closer to the test subjects the likelihood of snack-consumption increased significantly compared to the bowl placed further away. The average amount consumed though didn’t vary significantly (around 27-30 g).

While the study has limitations (for instance it wasn’t measured if the participants were hungry, had specific dietary restrictions or allergies), one of the key takeaway for you is that placing “undesired” or unhealthy food further away will significantly reduce the likelihood of actually consuming it.

Trick yourself or rather don’t get fooled

On the other hand, this information can also be great to know if you are in public eating/food spaces (restaurants, buffets, grocery stores), as “undesired” food can be placed in ways that make you buy or consume it.

The authors come to similar conclusions (my highlights):

“Given that reduced cognitive resource is linked to unhealthy diet, these results imply that an intervention altering food distance, which may operate non-consciously to affect behaviour, could inform efforts to tackle diet-related health inequalities at population level. The current studies indicate that placing unhealthy food an additional 50 cm further away increases effort required to obtain the food and has the potential to reduce chances of consumption. This effect could be capitalized on in designing real-world environments such as cafeterias or supermarkets, where products can be re-positioned to alter their degree of convenience for potential consumers e.g. moving less healthy foods from front to back rows of cafeteria buffet arrangements (Meyers & Stunkard, 1980), or away from till-points in shops (Kroese et al., 2015).”

Conclusion

In the end, you are in charge of your diet, just have in mind that non-conscious behaviour is very hard to control. To make it easier only have healthy snacks at your office. If you really want sweet snacks, make it inconvenient:

  • place them further away than arm’s length,
  • store them in your cupboard and
  • don’t place them in locations where you walk-by easily and often.

Have you experienced the proximity effect already? Will you try this experiment on yourself or maybe your colleagues? Let me know what your results are.


This article is part of the Short Tao series. These are posts, articles, reviews and similar content, provided to you in a short and easy to digest format. This means, I cut to the chase quickly and aim to make it as short and informative as possible. The content, especially when it comes to science, is up to date when I publish it, but times change. So, if anything you read here has been seen changes, make sure to let me know. Ultimately, this is for your entertainment and education. Comment below to share your thoughts and make sure to let your friends know of this information too – it could change lives.

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