Shining Light on Atmospherics: How Ambient Light Influences Food Choices

bright lunchroom

Can different levels of ambient light luminance (i.e., brightness/dimness) influence food choices? More specifically, would bright versus dim ambient lighting influences choices for healthy and unhealthy options? The results of a series of experiments conducted by Dipayan Biswas (Professor at University of South Florida), Courtney Szocs (Assistant Professor, Portland State University), Brian Wansink (Professor at Cornell University), and Roger Chacko (Chief Marketing Officer, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group) show that ambient light luminance levels influence food choices. This research is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research, which is a premier Marketing journal.

First, a field study at multiple locations of a casual dining chain showed that bright (25 lux) versus dim (250 lux) ambient lighting enhanced ordering of healthy options from the menu. Additional studies, conducted in controlled lab settings, replicate these findings. This phenomenon occurs mainly because dim (vs. bright) ambient lighting diminishes alertness levels, which in turn leads to more indulgent choices.

The findings of this research have important practical implications, especially in light of concerns related to obesity and focus on encouraging healthful consumption. Although the studies were conducted in restaurant settings across a wide range of customer age groups and with young adults in lab settings, the findings from this research have implications for school children and for cafeteria food display patterns.

Specifically, cafeterias and service lines should be as brightly lit as possible. This includes allowing natural light as much as possible through strategic use of windows and doors. In fact, daylight allows for much higher levels of luminance than regularly used commercial lighting. If windows are not available, then at least bright lighting during lunch periods can be helpful. Since brighter lights reduce sleepiness and enhances alertness, this can nudge children towards healthier choices.


Dipyan Biswas, PhD, University of South Florida 


Dipayan Biswas, Courtney Szocs, Brian Wansink and Roger Chacko (2016). Shining Light on Atmospherics: How Ambient Light Influences Food ChoicesJournal of Marketing Research. doi: 10.1509/jmr.14.0115.

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture (Flickr: 20120907-FNS-LSC-0546) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr