Healthy-Left, Unhealthy-Right: Can Displaying Healthy Items to the Left (versus Right) of Unhealthy Items Nudge Healthier Choices?

choosing food

Does lateral (i.e., left-right) display patterns of food items influence choice? More specifically, would displaying healthy items (such as salads) on the left and unhealthy items (such as burgers) on the right lead to different choice outcomes than displaying the items in the opposite pattern? The results of a series of experiments conducted by Marisabel Romero (Marketing Ph.D. candidate) and Dipayan Biswas (Professor of Marketing), both at University of South Florida, show that the left-right display patterns of healthy and unhealthy items influence choice and consumption volume. This research is forthcoming in the June 2016 issue of Journal of Consumer Research, which is a premier Marketing journal.

The findings of this research have important practical implications, especially in light of worldwide concerns related to obesity and a heightened focus on encouraging healthful consumption. Although their studies were mostly conducted with young adults in lab settings, the findings from Romero and Biswas’s research have implications for school children and for cafeteria food display patterns. Given that school cafeteria managers have considerable flexibility in terms of how they display food items, they can use the findings of this research to design nudge children towards healthier choices.

The results of the experiments demonstrate that when a healthy and an unhealthy item are organized laterally, there is relatively greater preference for the healthy option when it is displayed to the left (vs. right) of the unhealthy option. Furthermore, they propose and find that consumers’ natural tendency is to mentally organize healthy items to the left of unhealthy items, which in turn influences self-control and food choices.

To elaborate, they propose that consumers experience greater self-control when healthy/unhealthy items are displayed in a manner congruent with their natural mental representation. That is, consumers tend to mentally represent healthy items to the left (vs. right) of unhealthy items. Hence, a display pattern that is congruent with this mental representation facilitates ease of information processing. This in turn enhances self-control and resistance to temptation, thereby leading to relatively higher likelihood of choosing healthy options. They empirically examined this phenomenon with the help of a series of experiments.

In conclusion, given growing concerns related to obesity and factors influencing choices for healthy (vs. unhealthy) options, understanding how visual cues influence choice has important consequential implications. The findings of this research have implications for children’s health and wellbeing. Regulators and school cafeteria managers might want to promote having healthy items displayed to the left (vs. right) of unhealthy items in order to nudge healthier food choices and consumption. Since changing display patterns usually do not entail high levels of expenses, this can be a cost-effective option to nudge healthier choices in school cafeterias.


Dipyan Biswas, PhD and Marisabel Romero, University of South Florida