Login for members

How to Nudge People to Make Healthy Choices

By Juliano Laran

Being consciously aware of a goal means directly thinking about the goal while we are deciding what to do at any given moment. It is relatively easy to make choices consistent with a goal (e.g., healthy food choices) when we are consciously aware of the goal. When people are not consciously aware of the goal (they have a goal but are not thinking about it directly when making a decision), making a goal-consistent choice (e.g., choosing a healthy food item) can on many occasions be followed by a goal-inconsistent choice (e.g., choosing an unhealthy food item). For example, a person who eats a salad for lunch may then eat a large dessert, and a person who chooses a fruit at the supermarket may then choose a frozen pizza.

This study provides a series of tools to help researchers, consumers, and policy makers understand how people can behave more consistently over time, even when they are not directly thinking about their goals. This topic was chosen because we live in a world where there are multiple distractions everywhere, which makes it hard for people to really focus on and think about their goals. Thus, people may be concerned about goals such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but may not be able to think carefully about this goal every time they decide what they are going to do. As a result, they are not consciously aware of the goal, and need to rely on nonconscious processes to help them make the right choice consistently. This study shows how to nudge people in the right direction.


The study was conducted in a way that made people directly aware (conscious) versus indirectly aware  (nonconscious) of the goal to be healthy, and had them make a series of choices from ten options that were presented to them. Five of the options were healthy (e.g., a protein bar) and five were unhealthy but tastier (e.g., a chocolate bar). We expected that the participants’ first choice would be healthy, but that after the first choice people who had a nonconscious goal would make unhealthy choices. Given that the research tried to help people pursue the goal more consistently over time, different studies in the research program added different interventions to encourage people to continue making healthy choices.

One intervention involved increasing the number of healthy options available. A second intervention involved keeping people’s minds occupied after they made the initial choice. If their minds were occupied, they could not think too much about the fact that now that they had made a good choice (a healthy item) they were licensed to do something more indulgent (choose a tasty but unhealthy item). We hypothesized that in the absence of these interventions, people who were not directly thinking about the goal (“I want to eat healthy food”) would make an unhealthy choice after making a healthy choice. When these two interventions were used, however, we hypothesized that people would continue to make healthy choices after making an initial healthy choice. In this way, they would be able to pursue the goal over a longer period of time.


One consistent finding of this research is that when people are directly thinking about their goals (i.e., the goal is conscious), they are able to keep making choices consistent with those goals. The issue arises when the goal is nonconscious (i.e., people have the goal but are not directly thinking about it at the moment of choice). In this case, we consistently found that people made an unhealthy choice after making a healthy choice. This was remediated by increasing the number of healthy items to choose from. When the number of healthy items was higher (ten instead of five available items), people made up to five choices in a sequence that were healthy, avoiding the switch to unhealthy food items. The switch to unhealthy choices was also remediated by blocking people from thinking, after the first choice, about the fact that the choice satisfied their health goal. When they could not think about the fact that the goal had been satisfied, they made three goal-consistent choices on average, compared with only one when they were able to think about goal satisfaction. These results demonstrate that one reason people make unhealthy choices is that these choices can be a direct consequence of actually making healthy choices. There are ways, however, to stop people from thinking this way and help them more consistently make healthy choices.


Consumers behave inconsistently and the challenge for marketers is to understand the inconsistency in order to predict consumers’ preferences and behaviors. This research suggests that in order to understand consumers it is important to look beyond what they are consciously thinking. It is important to understand which goals consumers value but are not necessarily thinking about at the time of purchase, as these goals can still have a nonconscious influence on their behavior. For a company selling products that can serve a healthy lifestyle, for example, merely increasing the number of products available, even if the options are not very different from one another, will make consumers choose healthy products more consistently. This will increase sales and help companies better predict the behaviors of their market, as increasing the number of goal-consistent alternatives will make consumers behave more consistently over time.

Laran, J, Janiszewski, C and Salerna, A. (2019). Nonconscious Nudges: Encouraging Sustained Goal Pursuit. Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 46, Issue 2, 46(2) 307-329, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ ucy071

University of Miami
https://welcome.miami.edu/ Juliano Laran julianolaran@gmail.com

This article was originally published in the Neuromarketing Yearbook. Order your copy today