Original Article

Annals of Behavioral Medicine

, Volume 38, Supplement 1, pp 47-55

First online:

Obesity: Can Behavioral Economics Help?

  • David R. JustAffiliated withApplied Economics and Management, Cornell University Email author 
  • , Collin R. PayneAffiliated withMarketing Department, New Mexico State University

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Consumers regularly and predictably behave in ways that contradict standard assumptions of economic analysis such that they make decisions that prevent them from reaching rationally intended goals. These contradictions play a significant role with respect to consumers’ food decisions and the effect these decisions have on their health.


Food decisions that are rationally derived include those that trade short-term gains of sensory pleasure (hedonic) for longer term gains of health and wellness (utilitarian). However, extra-rational food decisions are much more common. They can occur because of the contexts in which they are made—such as being distracted or pressed for time. In these contexts, heuristics (or rules of thumb) are used. Because food decisions are made with little cognitive involvement, food policies designed to appeal to highly cognitive thought (e.g., fat taxes, detailed information labels) are likely to have little impact. Furthermore, food marketing environments influence not only what foods consumers buy but also how much. As a general principle, when individuals do not behave in their own interest, markets will feed perverse and sub-optimal behaviors.


Given the limited ability of individuals to retain and use accurate health information coupled with varying levels of self control, profit motivations of marketers can become predatory—though not necessarily malicious. Alternative policy options that do not restrict choice are outlined, which enable consumers to make better decisions. These options allow for profit motivations of marketers to align with the long-term well being of the consumer.


Behavioral economics Food policy Food psychology Obesity Consumption decisions