A Duke University researcher has coined the phrase “vicarious goal fulfillment.” That mouthful from Gavan Fitzsimons, PhD, a professor of psychology and marketing at Duke University, refers to his theory that people make bad food choices by just observing healthy food on a menu. Not only that, apparently people in the study picked the worst item on the menu.
“We’ve found that the presence of a healthy item leads people to choose the one that is the least healthy on the menu,” says Fitzsimons. “Just seeing the healthy item and considering it makes you feel you’ve done your duty. It’s crazy, but it’s human.”
Participants in the study, who were shown to have strong will power, crumbled under the pressure. When they saw french fries on a menu with only unhealthy foods, they were fine. But if a salad was added to the mix, they lost their will and buckled under the pressure.
So what is the psychology behind this odd phenomenon? Fitzsimons says that the presence of a salad on the menu has a “liberating effect” that frees even disciplined people “to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice.”