Offering a small incentive with a meal may motivate kids and adults to choose smaller portions, suggests a new study that found uncertain incentives stimulate the same reward centre of the brain as food.
Researchers from the University of Arizona and the University of Southern California in US have found that offering a small incentive with a meal consistently motivates kids and adults to choose smaller portions.
According to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies, the brain responds to a small toy, gift card, or lottery ticket in the same way it does to a mouthwatering burger or cheese-slathered pizza.
In a series of experiments, the researchers found that the majority of children and adults chose a half-sized portion paired with a toy or monetary prize over a full-sized portion without a toy or monetary prize. The price of the two options was kept the same.
Not only can a small prize motivate the healthier meal choice, but the mere prospect of getting it is more motivating than the prize itself.
The researchers found that people were more likely to choose a smaller meal for the chance to win a USD 10 lottery than to get a guaranteed reward. The premiums in the study were the chance to win USD 10, USD 50 or USD 100.
“The fact that participants were willing to substitute part of a tangible food item for the mere prospect of a relatively small monetary premium is intriguing,” said Martin Reimann from the University of Arizona.
While participants identified their choices with various foods and incentives, researchers collected neuroimaging data with fMRIs.
The results showed that the combination of half-sized portion and nonfood premium activates similar areas of the brain (specifically, the striatum which is associated with reward, desire and motivation) as the full-sized portion alone.
People were strongly motivated to choose half a burger or pizza even if they were hungry, and they did not compensate by eating more calories later.
Desirability of the prize also impacts motivation, the researchers found. While uncertain prizes are highly motivating, further research showed that a vague possibility of winning frequent flyer miles was more effective than a probable contest that listed the odds.
“One explanation for this finding is that possible premiums may be more emotionally evocative than certainty premiums,” Reimann said.
The findings imply that individuals can reward themselves for eating less food with nonfood items, researchers said.
Individuals could also celebrate other achievements, like a job promotion, with something other than food and still be happy.