BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS IN TIMES OF COVID-19

  5 min

EXPERT OPNION

Food choices and hospitality experiences during stress and social distancing

Behavioral economics
in times of COVID-19

Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

© Robin Wishna

Adam Brumberg is a research specialist in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the Deputy Director of the Cornell Institute for Behavioral Economics and Consumer Choice (IBECC). IBECC works to find behavioral solutions to real world challenges. Using the tools of behavioral science, their work has helped to improve food choices in homes, schools, cafeterias and retail settings. Adam also works with the Food Industry Management Program, introducing undergrads to the Food Industry and working with Industry on issues related to Consumer Behavior. To get a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on consumer behavior, editor in chief Hans Steenbergen asked Mr. Brumberg seven questions.

Hans Steenbergen Wouter Noordijk

7.

Are there any things you want to share with us?

"Yes, you can fight the effect of stress on your food choices by paying attention to what is driving you in the moment (am I actually hungry or am I just bored/anxious?) and by organizing your storage spaces (cupboards, pantries, refrigerators, etc.) in such a way that encourages you to select the 'better for you' food instead of the 'driven by mood' food. Put the 'better choice' foods at eye level, in front of the snacks and within easy reach. Cut up some fruits and veggies in advance so that it comes time to snack, they are easy to eat. Oh, and don’t beat yourself up when you eat a snack, that’ll just stress you out, then you’ll eat another snack, which further stresses you and then… you see where this is going."

6.

Thinking about hospitality as an important part of the restaurant experience, do you have any thoughts about how - despite social distancing - the staff can exceed expectations and make people happy? 

"First and foremost, they will need to find a way to demonstrate that they are taking every possible precaution, without drawing too much attention to it to avoid making customers uncomfortable. That may include, posting procedures in the entryway, having staff wear masks that are more 'stylish', whimsical or elegant and non-medical in appearance, getting rid of menus and other articles that are hard to clean or disinfect or highlighting, given the rise in distrust in lengthy supply chains, their connections to locally sourced food (and potentially creating them if they don’t have them)."   

“Encourage yourself to select the 'better for you' food instead of the 'driven by mood' food”

5.

If there is no science yet, what's your idea about the effect of social distancing on our behavior in restaurants and hotels?

"It’s really complicated. We go out to be social, even if it is just with the other person (or people) at our table. We like to be in an atmosphere of interaction, to be able to eavesdrop and people watch, or even to disappear in a crowd. Social distancing is the exact opposite of that. Restaurants are apparently trying to recreate that feeling through the use of mannequins, by seating people outside and removing unused furniture. It will take effort for patrons to be both careful and relaxed, and that will be part of the learning curve for everyone, both patron and restaurateur, over the coming year."

4.

Is there already research on what social distancing will mean for our food experiences in restaurants? What will change, what will stay the same? 

"Not that I am aware of. There has been work done on table spacing, but not to the distance that is currently required. I can say that the math does not work for a restaurant that is limited to less than 50% capacity. They will not be able to sustain profitable business in almost every circumstance."

3.

Do you think we will go back to normal, as soon there will be a vaccine? Or will we see new norms for behavior in social spaces like restaurants, hotels and leisure?

"Complicated question. Psychologically, part of 'defeating' COVID-19 is regaining the ability to 'get back to our lives'. That means doing what we used to do. And we are seeing, as places begin to relax restrictions, people trying to go out and in many cases violating social distancing guidelines or mask wearing recommendations (ever try to eat a burger with a mask on? It’s not pretty). So in the short term, I would expect many people to at least attempt to try and 'return to normal'. On the other hand, if people do not begin to feel truly safe until a vaccine is developed, that may be long enough for permanent habit and behavior change to set in. It remains to be seen if those new habits are 'good' or 'bad'."   

2.

What kind of impact does the pandemic have on our food choices at this very moment?  

"The current situation introduces a number of conditions that are known to create stresses, including disruption of routine, literal danger to ourselves and loved ones, extended news cycles focused on danger and health risks, isolation, financial hardships or worries, limited access to essential services, heightened vigilance for personal safety and even constraints on access to food. Given that, the opportunity for stress to influence our food choices is significantly higher than normal. In addition, many of us are sheltering in place, spending 24/7 within a few feet of all of our supplies of all kinds of food and drinks, including snacks and alcohol. Combining those two factors means that keeping from eating nothing but potato chips takes work and vigilance."

1.

Can you explain the relation between mood and food? Stress and happiness? What evidence is there that our state of mind influences our food choice?

"Mood impacts all of our decisions, not just those related to food. The higher our stress level, less analytical we are in the decision making process. We make knee jerk, snap decisions based primarily on what we think (or hope) will make us feel good, or at least better, in the moment.  In the context of food decisions, that means we are less likely to try something new and more likely to gravitate toward something familiar, something that we would categorize as a 'comfort food'. For most of us, that ends up being things that are higher in fat and/or sugar. There are literally thousands of articles that show the link between stress and poor food choices."

© Robin Wishna

  5 min

Offline: This content can only be displayed when online.

Food choices and hospitality experiences during stress and social distancing

Behavioral economics
in times of COVID-19

Adam Brumberg is a research specialist in the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the Deputy Director of the Cornell Institute for Behavioral Economics and Consumer Choice (IBECC). IBECC works to find behavioral solutions to real world challenges. Using the tools of behavioral science, their work has helped to improve food choices in homes, schools, cafeterias and retail settings. Adam also works with the Food Industry Management Program, introducing undergrads to the Food Industry and working with Industry on issues related to Consumer Behavior. To get a better understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on consumer behavior, editor in chief Hans Steenbergen asked Mr. Brumberg seven questions.

Hans Steenbergen Wouter Noordijk

1.

Can you explain the relation between mood and food? Stress and happiness? What evidence is there that our state of mind influences our food choice?

"Mood impacts all of our decisions, not just those related to food. The higher our stress level, less analytical we are in the decision making process. We make knee jerk, snap decisions based primarily on what we think (or hope) will make us feel good, or at least better, in the moment.  In the context of food decisions, that means we are less likely to try something new and more likely to gravitate toward something familiar, something that we would categorize as a 'comfort food'. For most of us, that ends up being things that are higher in fat and/or sugar. There are literally thousands of articles that show the link between stress and poor food choices."

2.

What kind of impact does the pandemic have on our food choices at this very moment?  

"The current situation introduces a number of conditions that are known to create stresses, including disruption of routine, literal danger to ourselves and loved ones, extended news cycles focused on danger and health risks, isolation, financial hardships or worries, limited access to essential services, heightened vigilance for personal safety and even constraints on access to food. Given that, the opportunity for stress to influence our food choices is significantly higher than normal. In addition, many of us are sheltering in place, spending 24/7 within a few feet of all of our supplies of all kinds of food and drinks, including snacks and alcohol. Combining those two factors means that keeping from eating nothing but potato chips takes work and vigilance."

3.

Do you think we will go back to normal, as soon there will be a vaccine? Or will we see new norms for behavior in social spaces like restaurants, hotels and leisure?

"Complicated question. Psychologically, part of 'defeating' COVID-19 is regaining the ability to 'get back to our lives'. That means doing what we used to do. And we are seeing, as places begin to relax restrictions, people trying to go out and in many cases violating social distancing guidelines or mask wearing recommendations (ever try to eat a burger with a mask on? It’s not pretty). So in the short term, I would expect many people to at least attempt to try and 'return to normal'. On the other hand, if people do not begin to feel truly safe until a vaccine is developed, that may be long enough for permanent habit and behavior change to set in. It remains to be seen if those new habits are 'good' or 'bad'."   

4.

Is there already research on what social distancing will mean for our food experiences in restaurants? What will change, what will stay the same? 

"Not that I am aware of. There has been work done on table spacing, but not to the distance that is currently required. I can say that the math does not work for a restaurant that is limited to less than 50% capacity. They will not be able to sustain profitable business in almost every circumstance."

5.

If there is no science yet, what's your idea about the effect of social distancing on our behavior in restaurants and hotels?

"It’s really complicated. We go out to be social, even if it is just with the other person (or people) at our table. We like to be in an atmosphere of interaction, to be able to eavesdrop and people watch, or even to disappear in a crowd. Social distancing is the exact opposite of that. Restaurants are apparently trying to recreate that feeling through the use of mannequins, by seating people outside and removing unused furniture. It will take effort for patrons to be both careful and relaxed, and that will be part of the learning curve for everyone, both patron and restaurateur, over the coming year."

“Encourage yourself to select the 'better for you' food instead of the 'driven by mood' food”

6.

Thinking about hospitality as an important part of the restaurant experience, do you have any thoughts about how - despite social distancing - the staff can exceed expectations and make people happy? 

"First and foremost, they will need to find a way to demonstrate that they are taking every possible precaution, without drawing too much attention to it to avoid making customers uncomfortable. That may include, posting procedures in the entryway, having staff wear masks that are more 'stylish', whimsical or elegant and non-medical in appearance, getting rid of menus and other articles that are hard to clean or disinfect or highlighting, given the rise in distrust in lengthy supply chains, their connections to locally sourced food (and potentially creating them if they don’t have them)."   

7.

Are there any things you want to share with us?

"Yes, you can fight the effect of stress on your food choices by paying attention to what is driving you in the moment (am I actually hungry or am I just bored/anxious?) and by organizing your storage spaces (cupboards, pantries, refrigerators, etc.) in such a way that encourages you to select the 'better for you' food instead of the 'driven by mood' food. Put the 'better choice' foods at eye level, in front of the snacks and within easy reach. Cut up some fruits and veggies in advance so that it comes time to snack, they are easy to eat. Oh, and don’t beat yourself up when you eat a snack, that’ll just stress you out, then you’ll eat another snack, which further stresses you and then… you see where this is going."

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Food Inspiration Magazine is the online magazine for foodservice professionals in search of inspiration and innovation. With the magazine we collect, enrich and spread inspiration. The free subscription magazine is published eight times per year and is an abundant source of inspiration for food and hospitality professionals. Our readers can be found in the U.S., Northern Europe, Latin America and Asia.
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