Researcher Jessica Cao with David Just, Calum Turvey and Brian Wansink of Cornell University looked at whether people respond to food risks in their favourite products the same way they do with less preferred ones.
A total of 116 participants were asked to bid on three flavours of chocolate bars: plain, almond, or peanut.
Results showed that consumers were willing to pay higher prices when they chose to commit to food items (treatment) than when they were randomly assigned (control), suggesting cognitive dissonance.
Willingness to pay
The psychological theories that are used to guide the study design are cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957) and confirmatory bias (Frey 1986).
Cognitive dissonance refers to the uncomfortable feeling from holding multiple contradicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviours.
Confirmatory bias was supported by findings that those who made an earlier commitment were more reluctant to change their willingness to pay (WTP) despite increased risk perceptions.
David Just, professor at Cornell University, told FoodQualityNews that it was a challenge to experiment in food safety by creating risk and giving people safe food.
“We found that if someone selected an item and then bid on it and was fed information on risk they didn’t pay much attention. When we make a choice we become fairly inflexible,” he said.
“With food safety in a real world recall, a consumer has bought a product and taken it home, they are less likely to believe, if they freely choose it they start to ignore food safety risk information.”
When asked how much of this was actually down to a ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude, Just said: “It is a bit of both. They think I’ve eaten this tons of times how can it be risky now, it won’t affect me.
“Industry do recalls as they don’t want people getting sick or suing them, but they have to think about this issue – what can we do to stop our loyal customers not consuming products they already have in their house. They could offer replacements or communicate more efficiently but that is challenging.
“A result like this is disturbing and makes you want to keep going to find a way to get around how to change information and offer choices or options when there is a food scare.”
Aflatoxin as food risk info
In the study, information on an aflatoxin foodborne pathogen was used as conflicting food safety risk information. The three food items were involved with different levels of risk.
Peanut flavour candy bars were the ones with the highest risk of aflatoxin, followed by almond, while plain/original flavour was generally believed to be free from this risk.
Two information sheets about aflatoxin food safety risks were provided to participants.
The first included some qualitative introduction about aflatoxin, how it was related to common food items and to human health and potential sickness, etc.
In the second, quantitative information about aflatoxin concentrations detected in different types of products was provided.
It was also made clear that whenever a product was detected with aflatoxin, concentrations in peanut products were roughly 1,000 times more than that in almond products.
Participants who had freely picked a flavour tended not to reduce their WTP after being told of the food safety risks relative to those who were randomly assigned a bar.
Before risk information was given, participants were willing to pay up to 24 cents for the peanut flavour.
After the risk information was given, they were willing to pay close to 38 cents more - a 58% increase.
Participants who chose their favourite bar were also less likely to change perception of risk when given relevant information.
After learning the risks, those who were assigned the bars increased their risk perception by more than 60%, whereas those that selected their favourite bar increased risk perception by over 30%.
Consumers’ judgment and information processing greatly depends on initial beliefs or consumption status, said the researchers.
“Results from this study suggested that consumers were less responsive to public information due to their existing habits, preferences, or even temporary consumption choices.
“Extra strategies would be needed to increase the efficiency of public communication to promote health.”
Source: Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics
Online DOI: 10.1111/cjag.12089
“Existing Food Habits and Recent Choices Lead to Disregard of Food Safety Announcements”
Authors: Ying (Jessica) Cao, David R. Just, Calum Turvey and Brian Wansink