This eye-tracking study investigated whether the physical appearance of another consumer can influence people’s visual attention and choice behavior in a grocery shopping context. Participants (N = 96) took part in a lab-based experiment and watched a brief video recording featuring a female consumer standing in front of a supermarket shelf. The appearance and body type of the consumer was manipulated between conditions, such that she was perceived as 1) healthy and of normal weight, 2) unhealthy by means of overweight, or 3) unhealthy through visual signs associated with a potentially unhealthy lifestyle, but not by means of overweight. Next, participants were exposed to a supermarket shelf with cereals and were asked to choose one alternative they could consider buying. Prior exposure to a seemingly unhealthy (vs. healthy) consumer resulted in a relative increase in participants’ visual attention towards products perceived to be healthy (vs. unhealthy), which prompted cereal choices deemed to be healthier. This effect was stronger for products that holistically, through their design features, managed to convey the impression that they are healthy rather than products with explicit cues linked to healthiness (i.e., the keyhole label). These results offer important implications regarding packaging design for marketers, brand owners, and policy makers. Moreover, the findings highlight the value of technological tools, such as eye-tracking methodology, for capturing consumers’ entire decision-making processes instead of focusing solely on outcome-based metrics, such as choice data or purchase behavior.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Participants in the validation study viewed each of the cereal options included in the main study and rated their healthiness on a single-item scale (1 = unhealthy; 7 = healthy). Relying on the same categorization as above, an index of the unhealthy cereal options yielded a high reliability (α = .90). The same applied to the index of the healthy cereal alternatives (α = .92). A repeated measures ANOVA revealed that the healthy cereal options (M = 4.35, SD = .83) were perceived as significantly healthier than the unhealthy cereal options (M = 2.56, SD = .81; F(1, 27) = 121.57, p < .001, η2 = .82). Furthermore, the unhealthy cereal options were rated as significantly more unhealthy than the scale midpoint of 4 (t(27) = -9.34, p < .001), whereas the healthy cereal alternatives were rated as significantly more healthy than the scale midpoint (t(27) = 2.24, p < .05), thus indicating an appropriate classification. Two extreme cases were removed from the analyses because they scored beyond two standard deviations from the mean on the index of healthy cereal options (cf. Otterbring, Löfgren, & Lestelius, 2014a), i.e., these participants rated all cereals as very unhealthy, as reflected by their consistent use of the two lowest response alternatives (i.e., 1 or 2). Males and females did not differ significantly in their responses and the inclusion of participant gender as a between-subjects factor did not change the nature and significance of the results.
This assertion does not, however, imply that all individuals perceive such stimuli as aversive, although our results suggest that this may be the case at the aggregate level. We thank an anonymous reviewer for bringing up this point.
Argo, J. J., Dahl, D. W., & Manchanda, R. V. (2005). The influence of a mere social presence in a retail context. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(2), 207–212.
Argo, J. J., Dahl, D. W., & Morales, A. C. (2008). Positive consumer contagion: Responses to attractive others in a retail context. Journal of Marketing Research, 45(6), 690–701.
Bartels, M., Tillack, K., & Jordan Lin, C.-T. (2018). Communicating nutrition information at the point of purchase: An eye-tracking study of shoppers at two grocery stores in the United States. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 42(5), 557–565.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370.
Bialkova, S., Grunert, K. G., & van Trijp, H. (2013). Standing out in the crowd: The effect of information clutter on consumer attention for front-of-pack nutrition labels. Food Policy, 41, 65–74.
Brunner, T. A., & Siegrist, M. (2012). Reduced food intake after exposure to subtle weight related cues. Appetite, 58(3), 1109–1112.
Caballero, B. (2007). The global epidemic of obesity: an overview. Epidemiologic Reviews, 29(1), 1–5.
Campbell, M. C., & Mohr, G. S. (2011). Seeing is eating: How and when activation of a negative stereotype increases stereotype-conducive behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(3), 431–444.
Cramer, P., & Steinwert, T. (1998). Thin is good, fat is bad: How early does it begin? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 19(3), 429–451.
Crandall, C. S., D’Anello, S., Sakalli, N., Lazarus, E., Nejtardt, G. W., & Feather, N. T. (2001). An attribution-value model of prejudice: Anti-fat attitudes in six nations. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(1), 30–37.
Crandall, C. S., & Sherman, J. W. (2016). On the scientific superiority of conceptual replications for scientific progress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 66, 93–99.
Crusco, A. H., & Wetzel, C. G. (1984). The Midas touch: The effects of interpersonal touch on restaurant tipping. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 10(4), 512–517.
Cruwys, T., Bevelander, K. E., & Hermans, R. C. (2015). Social modeling of eating: A review of when and why social influence affects food intake and choice. Appetite, 86, 3–18.
Dallery, J., Kurti, A., & Erb, P. (2015). A new frontier: integrating behavioral and digital technology to promote health behavior. The Behavior Analyst, 38(1), 19–49.
Dickson, P. R., & Sawyer, A. G. (1990). The price knowledge and search of supermarket shoppers. Journal of Marketing, 54(3), 42–53.
Döring, T., & Wansink, B. (2016). The waiter’s weight. Environment & Behavior, 49(2), 192–214.
Duguid, M. M., & Thomas-Hunt, M. C. (2015). Condoning stereotyping? How awareness of stereotyping prevalence impacts expression of stereotypes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(2), 343–359.
Eberhardt, J. L., Goff, P. A., Purdie, V. J., & Davies, P. G. (2004). Seeing black: Race, crime, and visual processing. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 87(6), 876–893.
Fagerstrøm, A., Pawar, S., Sigurdsson, V., Foxall, G. R., & Yani-de-Soriano, M. (2017). That personal profile image might jeopardize your rental opportunity! On the relative impact of the seller’s facial expressions upon buying behavior on Airbnb™. Computers in Human Behavior, 72, 123–131.
Fenko, A., Nicolaas, I., & Galetzka, M. (2018). Does attention to health labels predict a healthy food choice? An eye-tracking study. Food Quality & Preference, 69, 57–65.
Gao, Y. L., & Mattila, A. S. (2017). The impact of stereotyping on consumers’ food choices. Journal of Business Research, 81, 80–85.
Gallace, A., & Spence, C. (2010). The science of interpersonal touch: an overview. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 34(2), 246–259.
Gidlöf, K., Anikin, A., Lingonblad, M., & Wallin, A. (2017). Looking is buying. How visual attention and choice are affected by consumer preferences and properties of the supermarket shelf. Appetite, 116, 29–38.
Gidlöf, K., Wallin, A., Dewhurst, R., & Holmqvist, K. (2013). Using eye tracking to trace a cognitive process: Gaze behaviour during decision making in a natural environment. Journal of Eye Movement Research, 6(1), 1–14.
Glaholt, M. G., & Reingold, E. M. (2011). Eye movement monitoring as a process tracing methodology in decision making research. Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, & Economics, 4(2), 125–146.
Graham, D. J., Orquin, J. L., & Visschers, V. H. M. (2012). Eye tracking and nutrition label use: A review of the literature and recommendations for label enhancement. Food Policy, 37(4), 378–382.
Greenwald, A. G., & Krieger, L. H. (2006). Implicit bias: Scientific foundations. California Law Review, 94(4), 945–967.
Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N. J., Mortensen, C. R., Sundie, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., & Kenrick, D. T. (2009). Fear and loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, emotion, and persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(3), 384–395.
Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J. M., & Van den Bergh, B. (2010). Going green to be seen: Status, reputation, and conspicuous conservation. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 98(3), 392–404.
Hill, J. O., & Peters, J. C. (1998). Environmental contributions to the obesity epidemic. Science, 280(5368), 1371–1374.
Hoyer, W. D. (1984). An examination of consumer decision making for a common repeat purchase product. Journal of Consumer Research, 11(3), 822–829.
Huneke, T., Benoit, S., Shams, P., & Gustafsson, A. (2015). Does service employees’ appearance affect the healthiness of food choice? Psychology & Marketing, 32(1), 94–106.
Inman, J. J., Winer, R. S., & Ferraro, R. (2009). The interplay among category characteristics, customer characteristics, and customer activities on in-store decision making. Journal of Marketing, 73(5), 19–29.
Johnston, L. (2002). Behavioral mimicry and stigmatization. Social Cognition, 20(1), 18–35.
Jolls, C., & Sunstein, C. R. (2006). The law of implicit bias. California Law Review, 94, 969–996.
Kim, E., Tang, L. R., Meusel, C., & Gupta, M. (2018). Optimization of menu-labeling formats to drive healthy dining: An eye tracking study. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 70, 37–48.
Larsen, N. M., Sigurdsson, V., & Breivik, J. (2017). The use of observational technology to study in-store behavior: Consumer choice, video surveillance, and retail analytics. The Behavior Analyst, 40(2), 343–371.
Luck, M., & Benkenstein, M. (2015). Consumers between supermarket shelves: The influence of inter-personal distance on consumer behavior. Journal of Retailing & Consumer Services, 26, 104–114.
Manippa, V., van der Laan, L. N., Brancucci, A., & Smeets, P. A. M. (2019). Health body priming and food choice: An eye tracking study. Food Quality & Preference, 72, 116–125.
McFerran, B., Dahl, D. W., Fitzsimons, G. J., & Morales, A. C. (2010a). I’ll have what she’s having: Effects of social influence and body type on the food choices of others. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(6), 915–929.
McFerran, B., Dahl, D. W., Fitzsimons, G. J., & Morales, A. C. (2010b). Might an overweight waitress make you eat more? How the body type of others is sufficient to alter our food consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 20(2), 146–151.
Menon, R. V., Sigurdsson, V., Larsen, N. M., Fagerstrøm, A., & Foxall, G. R. (2016). Consumer attention to price in social commerce: Eye tracking patterns in retail clothing. Journal of Business Research, 69(11), 5008–5013.
Mori, D., Chaiken, S., & Pliner, P. (1987). “Eating lightly” and the self-presentation of femininity. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 53(4), 693–702.
Orquin, J. L. (2014). A Brunswik lens model of consumer health judgments of packaged foods. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 13(4), 270–281.
Orquin, J. L., Bagger, M. P., Lahm, E. S., Grunert, K. G., & Scholderer, J. (2020). The visual ecology of product packaging and its effects on consumer attention. Journal of Business Research.
Orquin, J. L., Bagger, M. P., & Mueller Loose, S. (2013). Learning affects top down and bottom up modulation of eye movements in decision making. Judgment & Decision Making, 8(6), 700–716.
Orquin, J. L., & Loose, S. M. (2013). Attention and choice: A review on eye movements in decision making. Acta Psychologica, 144(1), 190–206.
Orquin, J.L., Scholderer, J., & Jeppesen, H. (2012). What you see is what you buy: How saliency and surface size of packaging elements affect attention and choice. Paper presented at the Society for Advancement of Behavioural Economics (SABE) conference.
Otterbring, T. (2020). Appetite for destruction: Counterintuitive effects of attractive faces on people’s food choices. Psychology & Marketing.
Otterbring, T. (2017). Smile for a while: the effect of employee-displayed smiling on customer affect and satisfaction. Journal of Service Management, 28(2), 284–304.
Otterbring, T. (2018). Healthy or wealthy? Attractive individuals induce sex-specific food preferences. Food Quality & Preference, 70, 11–20.
Otterbring, T. (2019). Time orientation mediates the link between hunger and hedonic choices across domains. Food Research International, 120, 124–129.
Otterbring, T., Löfgren, M., & Lestelius, M. (2014a). Let there be light! An initial exploratory study of whether lighting influences consumer evaluations of packaged food products. Journal of Sensory Studies, 29(4), 294–300.
Otterbring, T., & Lu, C. (2018). Clothes, condoms, and customer satisfaction: The effect of employee mere presence on customer satisfaction depends on the shopping situation. Psychology & Marketing, 35(6), 454–462.
Otterbring, T., Ringler, C., Sirianni, N. J., & Gustafsson, A. (2018). The Abercrombie & Fitch effect: The impact of physical dominance on male customers’ status-signaling consumption. Journal of Marketing Research, 55(1), 69–79.
Otterbring, T., & Sela, Y. (2020). Sexually arousing ads induce sex-specific financial decisions in hungry individuals. Personality and Individual Differences, 152, 109576.
Otterbring, T., & Shams, P. (2019). Mirror, mirror, on the menu: Visual reminders of overweight stimulate healthier meal choices. Journal of Retailing & Consumer Services, 47, 177–183.
Otterbring, T., Shams, P., Wästlund, E., & Gustafsson, A. (2013). Left isn’t always right: placement of pictorial and textual package elements. British Food Journal, 115(8), 1211–1225.
Otterbring, T., Wästlund, E., & Gustafsson, A. (2016). Eye-tracking customers’ visual attention in the wild: Dynamic gaze behavior moderates the effect of store familiarity on navigational fluency. Journal of Retailing & Consumer Services, 28, 165–170.
Otterbring, T., Wästlund, E., Gustafsson, A., & Shams, P. (2014b). Vision (im) possible? The effects of in-store signage on customers’ visual attention. Journal of Retailing & Consumer Services, 21(5), 676–684.
Perone, M. (2019). How I learned to stop worrying and love replication failures. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 42(1), 91–108.
Peschel, A. O., Orquin, J. L., & Mueller Loose, S. (2019). Increasing consumers’ attention capture and food choice through bottom-up effects. Appetite, 132, 1–7.
Rafacz, S. D. (2019). Healthy eating: Approaching the selection, preparation, and consumption of healthy food as choice behavior. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 42(3), 647–674.
Reingen, P. H., & Kernan, J. B. (1993). Social perception and interpersonal influence: Some consequences of the physical attractiveness stereotype in a personal selling setting. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2(1), 25–38.
Rodriguez, A. C. I., Finch, L. E., Buss, J., Guardino, C. M., & Tomiyama, A. J. (2015). An experimental field study of weight salience and food choice. Appetite, 89, 215–218.
Rozin, P., Ashmore, M., & Markwith, M. (1996). Lay American conceptions of nutrition: Dose insensitivity, categorical thinking, contagion, and the monotonic mind. Health Psychology, 15(6), 438–447.
Russo, J. E. (2019). Eye fixations as a process trace. In M. Schulte-Mecklenberg, A. Kuhberger, & J. G. Johnson (Eds.), A handbook of process tracing methods (pp. 4–26). New York, NY: Routledge.
Selsøe Sørensen, H., Holm, L., Møgelvang-Hansen, P., Barratt, D., Qvistgaard, F., & Smith, V. (2013). Consumer understanding of food labels: toward a generic tool for identifying the average consumer: Report from a Danish exploration. International Review of Retail, Distribution & Consumer Research, 23(3), 291–304.
Siegrist, M., Hartmann, C., & Lazzarini, G. A. (2019). Healthy choice label does not substantially improve consumers’ ability to select healthier cereals: Results of an online experiment. British Journal of Nutrition, 121(11), 1313–1320.
Sigurdsson, V., Larsen, N. M., & Gunnarsson, D. (2014). Healthy food products at the point of purchase: An in-store experimental analysis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47(1), 151–154.
Sigurdsson, V., Menon, R. V., & Fagerstrøm, A. (2017). Online healthy food experiments: capturing complexity by using choice-based conjoint analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 40(2), 373–391.
Small, D. A., & Verrochi, N. M. (2009). The face of need: Facial emotion expression on charity advertisements. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(6), 777–787.
Smith, K. B., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Obesity statistics. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, 43(1), 121–135.
Söderlund, M. (2016). Employee mere presence and its impact on customer satisfaction. Psychology & Marketing, 33(6), 449–464.
Stöckli, S., Stämpfli, A. E., Messner, C., & Brunner, T. A. (2016). An (un)healthy poster: When environmental cues affect consumers’ food choices at vending machines. Appetite, 96, 368–374.
Tincani, M., & Travers, J. (2019). Replication research, publication bias, and applied behavior analysis. Perspectives on Behavior Science, 42(1), 59–75.
Van Loo, E. J., Caputo, V., Nayga Jr., R. M., Seo, H.-S., Zhang, B., & Verbeke, W. (2015). Sustainability labels on coffee: Consumer preferences, willingness-to-pay and visual attention to attributes. Ecological Economics, 118, 215–225.
Vila-López, N., Küster-Boluda, I., & Sarabia-Sánchez, F. (2017). Designing a packaging to promote healthy and low-fat foods: Adolescents versus young-adults. Food Research International, 99, 815–820.
Visschers, V. H., Hess, R., & Siegrist, M. (2010). Health motivation and product design determine consumers’ visual attention to nutrition information on food products. Public Health Nutrition, 13(7), 1099–1106.
Wang, S. S., Brownell, K. D., & Wadden, T. A. (2004). The influence of the stigma of obesity on overweight individuals. International Journal of Obesity, 28(10), 1333–1337.
Wästlund, E., Otterbring, T., Gustafsson, A., & Shams, P. (2015). Heuristics and resource depletion: eye-tracking customers’ in situ gaze behavior in the field. Journal of Business Research, 68(1), 95–101.
Wästlund, E., Shams, P., & Otterbring, T. (2018). Unsold is unseen . . . or is it? Examining the role of peripheral vision in the consumer choice process using eye-tracking methodology. Appetite, 120, 49–56.
Zwaan, R. A., Etz, A., Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2017). Making replication mainstream. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 41, e120.
Xu, J., Shen, H., & Wyer Jr., R. S. (2012). Does the distance between us matter? Influences of physical proximity to others on consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 418–423.
Conflict of Interest
All authors approved the manuscript prior to submission and jointly declare that they have no conflicts of interest.
The first author wrote the initial draft of the manuscript and conducted the statistical analyses. The second and third author contributed substantially to the conceptualization of the article and made significant contributions with respect to subsequent drafts. The fourth author collected the data.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Otterbring, T., Gidlöf, K., Rolschau, K. et al. Cereal Deal: How the Physical Appearance of Others Affects Attention to Healthy Foods. Perspect Behav Sci 43, 451–468 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-020-00242-2
- Visual attention
- Eye tracking
- Food choice
- Packaging design
- Nonverbal cues