Testing theoretical models while answering real world questions

In my previous blog post I wrote about the need for applying health research to improve community health. Another glaring need is to conduct research that both test theoretical models and addresses community-relevant questions. What does this mean? Dr. Eve Brank and Lindsey Wylie outline a perfect example in their recent Monitor on Psychology article “If you want a toy, eat your broccoli.”

Learning theories suggest that learning associations between objects can take place through reinforcement. So for example, a meal that comes with a toy (the reward) may reinforce a child’s behavior of requesting and eating that type of meal. Health advocates argue that this type of marketing is used by the food industry with high-calorie low-nutrient meals and is creating a learned association between these poor nutrition quality foods and reward in children, potentially contributing to the obesity epidemic. The city of San Francisco is taking a stand against this type of marketing. Later this year, San Francisco restaurants will no longer be allowed to give toys to kids along with their meals as a result of the Healthy Food Incentives Ordinance. Sounds like a good plan, right?

Two questions that can be answered empirically immediately pop into my mind. 1) Will it work? Will limiting this type of marketing work in reducing the number of unhealthy fast food meals eaten by children? 2) If you paired healthy food options with a toy, would that form a learned association between healthy choices and reward? The second question is suggested by the authors. It is a great example of how a theoretical model of learning could be applied and tested in a real world context. The results could impact food policy. So all you behavioral scientists in San Francisco… get out there and test it!

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