The Art & Science Of Fruit & Vegetable “Habit Systems”

We all have dozens, maybe hundreds of habits. Together, these “habit systems” determine around half of our actions, and they may offer the key to increasing long stagnant rates of fruit and vegetable consumption.

PBH has some important new research on the art and science of habit systems, PBH Hacks To Habits: A Behavioral Research Study To Bolster Fruit & Vegetable Consumption. The art is in identifying “hacks” that people turn into habits, and the science is in understanding exactly how habits work, and how they can be developed.

In the past, habit systems have been misunderstood (and even ignored) by communicators, advocates, marketers and consumers alike. The new PBH research has aimed to remedy that. In this piece I’ll describe the key themes:

Theme 1: Habits Are Context-Specific Automatic Behaviors
A defining feature of habits is their automaticity. In the new research, we surveyed consumers and assessed the degree of automaticity in both their shopping and consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Using a scale adapted from academic research, we found that there is more automaticity (i.e., more habit) in shopping behavior than in consumption behavior. Shopping for fruit was largely automatic for 44% of consumers, whereas consumption of fruit was largely automatic for only 33%. Similarly, shopping for vegetables was largely automatic for more consumers than was consuming vegetables (39% vs. 32%).

Key implication: Marketers, health professionals and communicators need to treat shopping and consuming separately. For any produce category or product, we should be asking separate questions. What does the shopper need to do automatically? And, what does the consumer need to do automatically? For the shopper, it might be going to a specific place in the produce section and easily finding (and inspecting) their frequently-purchased item. For the consumer, the automatic behavior might be including a specific fruit or vegetable in frequently-consumed home meals. Habits are about repetition and automaticity. Health professionals, communicators and marketers need to target automaticity by fostering repetition of specific behaviors in specific contexts (i.e., shopping vs. home meal consumption).

Theme 2: Fruit Habits Will Be Different From Vegetable Habits
The behaviors that are automatic for shopping or consumption of specific fruits are not the same behaviors that are automatic for shopping or consumption of specific vegetables. One way our survey captured this was by showing the different challenges faced by consumers of fruits vs. vegetables.

We asked some participants, “If you could make one thing easier about eating fruit what would it be?”, while others were asked the same question about vegetables.

The most frequently-given answer for fruit pertained to spoilage: “Easier to use before it goes bad.” This was true for both high- and medium- as well as low-frequency consumers. So, fruit consumers need more strategies to automate the storage of fruit, or perhaps the timing of shopping and consumption.

For vegetables, the dominant challenge varied by consumption frequency. High- and medium-frequency vegetable consumers said, “Easier to prepare”. Low-frequency vegetable consumers, on the other hand, emphasized taste: “Easier to make taste really good.” Importantly, taste was not seen as the main challenge for many low fruit consumers.

Key implication: Marketers and communicators need to treat fruit and vegetable consumption separately. Each specific produce category will have its own unique shopping and consumption habits, and each will have its own habit challenges. Our research suggested that habits to prevent spoilage are a key need for fruit consumers. For vegetable consumers, habit needs were around “ease of preparation” or “ease of tasty preparation.” Consumers want to have such habits. Health professionals, marketers and communicators can help them identify, and then repeat and eventually automate these key behaviors.

Theme 3: High-Frequency Consumers Have More Fruit & Vegetable Habits
Do habits actually translate into more consumption of fruits and vegetables? Our survey has found that yes, people who have shopping or consumption habits for fruits and vegetables eat more cups of fruits and vegetables per day.

In fact, high automaticity (i.e., habit driven) fruit shoppers reported significantly more fruit consumption than did low automaticity shoppers (6.0 times per week vs. 4.8 times per week). Similarly, high automaticity vegetable shoppers reported significantly more vegetable consumption than did low automaticity shoppers (6.8 times per week vs. 5.8 times per week).

Also, perhaps not surprisingly, high automaticity consumption was strongly associated with more frequent consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Key implication: Habits are important drivers of consumption. Marketers and communicators need strategies to identify and nurture fruit and vegetable habits. The current habits of high- and medium-frequency consumers may provide a roadmap for low-frequency consumers.

Theme 4: High-Frequency Consumers Can Build Fruit & Vegetable Habits From Hacks

Hacks, generally, are ways to make things easier. Hacks are great candidates for habits because easy behaviors are more likely to become automated. One theme in the new PBH research was to identify potential hacks that could become habits, and to assess whether consumers (medium- and high-frequency as well as low-frequency) thought that new hacks could actually increase their fruit and vegetable consumption. The results were encouraging.

First of all, not surprisingly, medium- and high-frequency fruit consumers were found to rely more on life hacks than were low-frequency consumers. For example, they were more likely to report putting fruit on the counter where it’s easy to see and grab (a convenience hack) and more likely to add fruits and veggies to favorite dishes, meals, and snacks like tacos and pizza (a usage hack).

The encouraging part is that low-frequency consumers generally found such hacks to be promising ways to increase their own consumption. Sixty nine percent of low-frequency fruit consumers agreed that it would be easy to double fruit consumption, but after showing them a list of tips and tricks, that number increased to 73%. Similarly, knowledge of hacks increased low-frequency vegetable consumers’ beliefs about the ease of doubling consumption by 7% (from 62% to 69%).

The knowledge of hacks also increased high- and medium-frequency fruit and vegetable consumers’ beliefs about the ease with which consumption can be doubled (4% for fruit and 3% for vegetables).
Our findings, and indeed our recommendation to leverage hacks, is consistent with the results of a recent paper by behavior change researcher Katy Milkman. Milkman calls the idea, “Copying and pasting” — when you find someone who has successfully done something you want to do (eat more fruits), simply imitate their methods (e.g., putting fruit in your morning cereal). In fact, a study run by Katie Mehr, Amanda Geiser, Katy Milkman, and Angela Duckworth found that encouraging people to copy and paste another person’s hacks motivated adults to exercise more.

Key implication: Hacks are a well-known concept. Many people are rightly proud of their artful hacks. Effective fruit and vegetable hacks can be identified, celebrated, and developed into (automatic) habits. Health professionals, marketers and communicators can support this process by using the language of hacks, but also by taking a behavioral approach to them. Something isn’t really a hack unless it’s easy to do. People need to be given lots of hack options to identify ones that may work for them. And the hack will still need to be repeated to produce the automaticity of a habit. All communicators can help consumers turn hacks into habits.

Habits systems offer a great opportunity for health professionals, marketers and communicators to dramatically increase fruit and vegetable consumption rates. PBH’s new research shows that there is a path forward. More research is needed, but the “hacks to habits” approach offers a specific strategy: Identify the habit systems of high- and medium-frequency consumers, and then help low-frequency consumers emulate those specific habit systems.

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