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The Simple Trick That Can Bolster Willpower At the Supermarket

New research finds grocery shoppers who carry baskets are more likely to purchase unhealthy food than those pushing a cart.

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“We propose that we may not always approach rewards because we want them,” the researchers write, “but that we may want rewards because we are approaching them.”

The implications of this finding are multifaceted. “Pulling a door to enter a building, rather than pushing the same door, could lead to purchases of products that entail immediate benefits,” Van den Bergh and his colleagues write.

This implies ice cream parlors may enjoy increased sales if customers must pull open the door to enter, whereas insurance companies — which depend upon customers trading short-term pain for long-term security — would do well to let customers enter by pushing the door forward.

It also suggests why old-fashioned slot machines can be so addictive.

“Slot machines for which you need to pull a lever may lead to bigger revenues (than those that require only pushing a button),” the researchers write. “The fact that the lever is located on the right hand side of the slot machine, combined with the fact that most individuals are right-handed, increases the chances of instigating present-bias preferences.” Such as the impulse to put another quarter into the machine and keep the excitement going.

The idea that casino owners take advantage of this phenomenon is hardly a shock; intuitively, they probably picked up on it earlier than anyone else. But it is surprising to learn we’re lowering our odds of long-term health every time we pick up a supermarket hand basket. This study suggests that if we want our willpower to work, it literally can use a push.

Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Ventura County Star.

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