Research teams from the University of Miami and California Institute of Technology looked into how the brain considers both visual cues and taste preferences when making everyday food choices. Past experience and personal taste come into play, but a pack’s general appearance also plays big into the decision to buy.
Colorful or otherwise visually strong food packaging can determine where a shopper’s eyes land on a shelf and on a package, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. What’s more, the aesthetics of a package can predetermine how long they spend looking at certain options and (in the end) influence selection of one product over another.
The eyes have it
Milica Mormann, senior research scientist at the University of Miami’s School of Law and study co-author, explained that tracking of shoppers’ eye movements in a simulated shopping environment can help predict their behavior in a retail environment.
“The big idea here is that perceptual processes happen in the brain in parallel with economic value computations and thus influence how economic decisions are made,” she said.
Mormann and her fellow researchers instructed test subjects to scan and choose a snack food item to eat out of four snack alternatives (choices included candy and snacks such as M&Ms and Twix). Eye-tracking equipment recorded in real time which items subjects were looking at, for how long.
"These findings can be applied to guide the design of choice environments, to 'nudge' people toward making optimal choices, be it selecting a healthy food option to eat or the best retirement plan to invest in,” she said.
The team also analyzed food images using to find out which packages attracted attention due to color, brightness and other visual features. Results showed that visual fixations are driven by a combination of visual attractiveness and preference information.
Further, the results indicate that a product’s aesthetics affect consumers in a ratio of 1:3 or 2:3 compared to consumer preferences. While visual attractiveness has a smaller influence than taste preferences on consumer decisions, it is still significant.
Mormann said this study stands apart from previous research by focusing on what is economically attractive, as well as examining what people perceive and pay attention to. Bringing together these two research approaches leads to a more comprehensive understanding of how people make choices, she explained.
"The traditional research approach tends to ignore other, fundamental influences that could impact decision makers at the time of choice, such as how people perceive choice options and how much attention they allocate to different options," Mormann said.
The findings conclude that during the economic choice process, the shopper’s brain combines and reconciles competing types of inputs, including (but not limited to) the perceptual and taste preference information. After weighing the various factors, a decision on purchase is made.