Few areas highlight human irrationality as clearly as our decisions around food, and a prime illustration is our tendency to buy and consume more than we truly need.
Around one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and a recent EU-wide research shows that consumer decisions alone account for more than half of the overall food waste in the EU.
But why do people throw away so much food? What are the psychological drivers of food waste? Below we list 5 psychological biases that influence food purchase and consumption.
Bias 1: Ugly is bad
We're naturally drawn to perfect-looking food because it's a safety instinct to avoid anything that might be bad for us. This ugly is bad bias makes us want food that looks flawless and avoid food that doesn't look perfect. This bias results in tons of perfectly edible food being discarded just because of their look.
Bias 2: The more the better
Humans are attracted to salient and abundant displays. This inclination steers us to prefer fully stocked shelves rather than those appearing partially empty. This abundancy bias compels retailers to consistently replenish shelves with new products, even before the existing stock is depleted.
Bias 3: Here and now
The influence of the present moment is very strong when doing the groceries – think about those times when you've shopped with an empty stomach! The present bias can make it hard to think about the future, so we make purchase decisions without considering the long-term, like the effort or time it takes to cook certain things, or how much we will be able to actually eat.
Bias 4: (Not) too good to go
Expiration dates are required by law to ensure consumer safety and health awareness, but research shows that they contribute (perhaps paradoxically) to food waste. First, consumers have a tendency to favor products with extended expiration dates when compared to items with nearer expiry dates – despite equal quality and safety. Second, the distinction between "Best by" and "Use by" labels is confusing for many consumers and lead to unnecessary disposal of perfectly safe food items.
Bias 5: Not really wasted, is it?
The licensing effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein individuals rationalize behavior they consider immoral by emphasizing moral behavior in other domains. Research has shown that consumers justify their own food waste by engaging in other environmentally conscious actions, such as composting. This perception of "earning" the right to waste can reduce the sense of guilt associated to food waste and, in fact, contribute to maintain or increase negative habits.
Conclusions: aim at consumers’ emotions and instinct
Consumers have plenty of rational options to diminish food waste, including proper food storage, reducing portion sizes, sticking to shopping lists, or planning to do the groceries when not hungry. However, strategies based on rational, logical reasoning are problematic to sustain over time due to the unconscious, instinctive, and irrational nature of human decision-making.
A more effective approach starts from considering the biases that shape consumers' food-related choices when devising strategies to lower food waste. Initiatives that connect with the emotional and instinctive part of the consumer brain are much more likely to be effective than those that only play on rational arguments.
A good illustration is the "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables" campaign, a creation of the marketing agency Marcel Worldwide for the French chain Intermarché. This campaign not only raises awareness about food waste but also counters the "Ugly is bad" bias by employing bright and clean visuals that celebrate imperfect yet good-quality fruits and vegetables. This visual approach resonates with consumers on an emotional level and aims to reshape the instinctive connection between food appearance and food quality.
Other strategies focus on making access to surplus food easy and convenient. For example, the Too Good To Go app connects consumers with surplus food from local eateries like restaurants and bakeries. This app is specifically designed to address food waste by offering a user-friendly platform to buy discounted items that are near their expiry date but remain safe for consumption.
Another approach to reduce food waste involves supporting consumers in managing their food purchases and consumption. Apps like NoWaste help individuals tackle challenges related to long-term planning and rational evaluations by simplifying the tracking, organization, and management of household food. NoWaste users can directly scan receipts to log their weekly shopping, create item lists, plan meals efficiently, and even receive automatic reminders for expirations.
In essence, these initiatives demonstrate that lowering food waste is achievable through strategies that align with consumer behavior. Rather than relying solely on rational thinking, these approaches are effective by assisting consumers in saving time, money, and mental effort when making food-related decisions.