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A Time Delay In Vending Machines Makes People Pick Healthy Snacks

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Impatience just may pay off – at least, when it comes to buying food from vending machines, a study has found.

Brad Appelhans, an associate professor of preventative medicine at Rush University Medical Center, designed an experimental device that fits inside a common vending machine. This gives customers a 25-second wait before it releases typical, processed snacks. However, healthier items such as peanuts or popcorn can drop immediately, NPR reports.

The idea behind the experiment is that every second that a person has to wait to get a snack, the less he or she wants it. It’s a “time tax,” similar to how raising the prices on sugary drinks might make people think twice before buying them.

Appelhans says,

We were interested in the ability to test whether time delays can nudge people to healthier choices.

The device, called “Delays to Influence Snack Choice” or DISC for short, consists of a platform that is inserted inside a vending machine. This platform catches the snacks that fall from the top of the machine, where an operator would place all of the unhealthy items. On the display window, a written sign informs customers that they have to wait 25 seconds more for those snacks.

When an item falls onto DISC, there is a 25-second countdown on the vending machine’s display screen. Then the DISC platform drops to release the snack. Healthier snacks, on the other hand, are placed on the bottom half of the machine so that they fall instantly.

To qualify as a “healthy snack,” a product would have to meet five out of seven categories, including containing fewer than 250 calories, and having less than 350 mg of sodium or 10 mg of added sugars per serving.

Appelhans tested the device by placing it in vending machines around Rush University for several months. Each month, he varied the conditions, such as lowering the price of healthier snacks or raising the prices of less healthy ones. Then he monitored how the addition of DISC affected these price conditions.

When DISC was present, Appelhans reported that people started choosing the healthy snacks. “We saw a roughly 5% change in the proportion of healthy snacks,” he says. This was roughly the same increase in sales as when the prices for healthier snacks were cut by 25 cents, with no time delays.

But there are advantages to using DISC over changing the prices on snacks. “Unlike the discount, the delays didn’t harm the overall revenues of the machine. Places want people to have more nutrition, but they don’t want to lose revenue. So the time delay might be a nice way to have it both ways,” Appelhans explains.

The researcher will be presenting the study at the Society of Behavioral Medicine meeting in San Diego.

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