There’s an old joke. Q: “How do you make a teenager cross the road?” A: “Tell them not to.”
Only it’s not just a joke. According to a new study from the University of Texas in Austin, using a teen’s rebellious tendencies is also a great way to make them do what you want–in this case, to eat a healthy diet.
The study, titled “Harnessing adolescent values to motivate healthier eating,” set out to see if there was a better way to make teens eat healthily than just telling them it was good for them in the long term. As anyone who was ever a teenager knows, the far future is just about the least interesting thing, like, ever.
The trick, says the paper, is to sell healthy eating “as a way to take a stand against manipulative and unfair practices of the food industry, such as engineering junk food to make it addictive and marketing it to young children.” That is, you should position the avoidance of junk food as sticking it to the man.
The experiment took more than 500 kids in their early teens and randomly assigned them either material promoting the long-term benefits of healthy eating or materials “exposing the deceptive and manipulative marketing practices of food companies and describing their harmful effects on society–with a particular emphasis on harm to young children and the poor.” A third group was given no materials to read, as a control, and another group was given a placebo article.
The next day, in a seemingly unrelated incident, kids were given a snack pack by teachers as a reward for their excellent work. The kids’ menu choices were recorded. The kids were also tested on their emotional responses to food advertisements.
“If the normal way of seeing healthy eating is that it is lame, then you don’t want to be the kind of person who is a healthy eater,” co-author David Yeager told the Guardian. “But if we make healthy eating seem like the rebellious thing that you do, you make your own choices, you fight back against injustice, then it could be seen as high status.”
The trick worked. Kids who had been primed to view junk food as a bad, and healthy food as anti-establishment, chose more healthy foods from the snack menu. The differences weren’t huge, but they were big enough to be significant. Forty three percent of those who had read the “exposé materials” chose junky snacks, against 54% of those who’d gotten the regular “long-term health” spiel. The control group chose the same as the latter group. Overall, the rebellious kids saw a 9% reduction in sugar in their chosen foods.
Put like this, it seems so obvious. We should work with teens’ tendencies rather than fighting against them. After all, few groups are more stubborn and idealistic than adolescents. At the same time, they’re still naive enough not to know how predictably conformist teenage rebellion is. We could use this blind spot, says the report, to prevent future obesity and establish healthy habits early. And this trick may not be limited just to food choice. Anything that can be aligned with adolescent rebellion could be a target, from curbing drinking, to guiding acceptable social behavior. Hell, maybe we could even trick teens into thinking it’s cool to have a tidy bedroom.