Studies & Numbers

Study: Reflecting on Behavioural Nudges Could Reduce Meat Consumption

A study conducted in a German university cafeteria has investigated the potential of behavioural nudges to reduce meat consumption.

Nudge theory states that the design of an environment can influence the choices people make. For example, healthier or more ethical foods can be placed in a more visible position, encouraging consumers to choose them over less beneficial foods. However, some studies indicate that nudges alone may not be enough to bring about significant behaviour change. The new study aimed to determine whether adding an extra step to the process, where participants reflect on their feelings after seeing the nudge, could decrease meat consumption.

In the first week, the baseline dietary behaviours of 129 students were measured, before a labelling nudge was introduced in the cafeteria in the second week. For the following two weeks, students were randomly assigned to one of three groups, one of which was a control group that continued to receive the nudge as previously. Another group was given the opportunity to reflect on the nudge after seeing it, while a third group was told to reflect on their own preferences. In the final week of the study, all interventions were stopped.

a lunch service station in a school cafeteria
© ercan senkaya –

The results showed that the labelling nudge alone did not make any meaningful change to particpants’ behaviour. However, reflecting on the nudge reduced the demand for meat by 5%, while reflecting on personal preferences reduced demand by 7% — considered to be a significant drop. The effect was short-term, with meat consumption increasing again once the interventions were stopped. The authors conclude that combining nudges with reflection can lead to short-term improvements in sustainable dietary behaviours.

Other nudge strategies

When attempting to influence dietary choices in a food service setting, one of the most successful nudges is to make healthier or more sustainable options the default. This has been demonstrated by a study which found that 81% of US college students chose plant-based meals when they were the default option, compared to just 31% before the study began. Additionally, hospitals in New York City began making plant-based meals the default in 2022, with over half of patients opting for them despite only 1% identifying as vegetarian or vegan.

Plant-based meals the default option in NYC hospitals
Image: @defaultveg on Instagram

Another strategy is to place more sustainable options higher up on menus; this is currently being practiced by McDonald’s Netherlands, which is placing meatless items ahead of beef. Similarly, many supermarkets are placing plant-based meat in the conventional meat aisle, drawing the attention of consumers who may not visit a dedicated vegetarian or vegan aisle.

Using more attractive names for plant-based dishes also increases the number of participants who choose them, according to an Australian study published last year. Similar language changes have previously proven successful in public health campaigns for smoking cessation and vaccination.

“With food contributing nearly 25% to global emissions, changing meal choices for even the smallest of market segments can make a meaningful contribution to climate change mitigation,” said the authors of the Australian study.

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