Can Touch Screens Make Us Choose Unhealthy Food? (with animated video)

By Mabel Sieh, Managing Editor, China Business Knowledge@CUHK

There is no doubt the Internet has changed our way of living. We can now do everything online: reading the news, shopping for the latest fashion, purchasing a movie ticket or the plane ticket for our next trip, and ordering our meals while sitting in our office or home. In fact, many fast food chains such as McDonald, Pizza Hut and KFC enable customers to order food online through their websites or mobile apps. Likewise, in many restaurants, iPads are offered to customers who can select their food and drinks with a touch on the digital menu.

While we are enjoying the convenience brought by technology, have we thought about how the digital world has really changed our lives, and perhaps also our choices?

The findings of the research titled “Computer Interfaces and the Direct-Touch Effect: Can iPads Increase the Choice of Hedonic Food?” at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School have offered some interesting insights to the question.

Conducted by Associate Professors Shen Hao and Zhang Meng, both from CUHK Business School’s Department of Marketing, with their collaborator Professor Aradhna Krishna from the University of Michigan, the study observed the increasing use of technology such as customized mobile apps in the domain of food choice, and asked the question: What effect do these digital devices have on customers’ choice of food?

The Studies

In five laboratories studies with various groups of undergraduate students in two universities in Hong Kong, the researchers tested whether customers using different computer interfaces with and without a touchscreen would affect their choices of food. In other words, will there be any difference in their choices when they browse a pictorial menu online and select the food by touching the picture on the screen or by clicking the mouse on the desktop?

In the first study, students were asked to choose from a pair of products online, one hedonic (a piece of cheesecake) and one utilitarian (a bowl of green salad). These two choices were pretested to be affectively superior (i.e., enjoyable and tempting) and cognitively superior (i.e., better for health). The group was divided into two with some participants using an iPad (i.e., touch), while others using a desktop with a mouse (i.e. non-touch).

To test whether the distance of choice buttons would affect their selections, another study asked participants to choose between a cup of hot chocolate and a cup of tea. But this time, the choice buttons were either next to or distant from the food items.

To test whether non-direct touch would make a difference, another study offered some participants a stylus to choose their food on the iPad, while others were using their fingers directly to touch on the iPad. Another group was using a desktop with a mouse. The choices this time were between a food item (a bowl of ice cream) and a non-food item (a USB flash drive).

Direct-Touch and Mental Interaction

All studies supported the researchers’ hypothesis – touching the screen facilitates the mental interaction with the product and makes consumers choose hedonic over utilitarian food items, a phenomenon which the researchers called the ‘Direct-Touch’ effect.

In the study when participants were using a stylus to touch the screen, the ‘Direct-Touch’ effect did not happen. In other words, using a stylus is the same as using a mouse to click on the screen.

 “When consumers use an iPad and select the food by touching the pictures, they tend to select hedonic food over utilitarian food,” says Prof. Shen Hao of CUHK Business School. “They would be more likely to choose a cheesecake rather than a bowl of salad,” he adds.

So what does touching the screen do to our brain?

“The Direct-Touch effect is similar to our natural reaction towards hedonic food – the spontaneous urge to grab it. When we touch the picture of cheesecake on the iPad menu, it is like reaching out to grab the cheesecake in real life. Such an urge, however, is less strong for utilitarian food (e.g. a bowl of green salad),” explains Prof. Zhang Meng, co-author of the study.

“So touching a hedonic food picture rather than clicking it with a mouse leads to a higher purchase intention,” she adds.


The study has significant implications for public policymakers and marketers, according to the professors.

“Previous research has found that touch can increase affective response towards an object and increase impulsive buying behavior. Our study has gone a step further to show simply asking consumers to order by touching the hedonic food image would be sufficient to increase their mental simulation of grabbing the food and wanting to purchase it,” says Prof. Shen.

In a larger scope, the study has relevant implications for public policy, as different response modes can affect food choices, including unhealthy food, in our community.

“Our study result reveals that direct touch increases the choice of hedonic options. If computer interfaces can influence our food choices, consumers and public policy officials should be made aware of the effect so that they could adopt strategies to facilitate the choice of healthy food,” he adds.

In terms of marketing, in today’s technological world where more and more restaurants are offering touchscreen menus for efficiency, the study also implies that specific marketing strategies using different computer interfaces could be explored to yield desirable choices among consumers.



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Got any comments, insights or questions? Post them here to further discuss the topic:



11/24/2017 2:43:45 PM
Consumers may be more patient after using a touch system to order food, because the touching process shortens the psychological distance between the consumers and the food--which may influenced the perceived temporal distance between the two.
11/24/2017 2:32:40 PM
It would be interesting to investigate the effect of using touch/non-touch interface in selecting food on consumers' post-choice judgment. Does food that acquired through touch interface taste better/worse?
11/24/2017 2:24:47 PM
The findings have important marketing implications. Consumers' choices can be substantially influenced by the touch/non-touch ordering system. Marketers may promote healthy food in ways that cannot be easily sensed by the consumers.
Dandan Tong
10/27/2017 6:52:12 PM
It is interesting that the "direct touch" effect disappears when people use a stylus to touch the screen. I am also curious when the effect can be mitigated when people are asked to touch the text of product title, instead of touching the picture with their fingers.
Dandan Tong
10/27/2017 6:48:05 PM
Although the authors assume that hedonic products elicit grabbing tendency, this is not always the case. In daily life, hedonic food is associated with fatty, which may lead people with chronic dieting goal to avoid it when in the touching condition.
Dandan Tong
10/27/2017 6:45:40 PM
The findings are very interesting. The researchers' findings imply a possibility that a customer when form different preferences when choosing on the same online store, depending on whether he or she is using a PC or smartphone APP.
K. Si
10/25/2017 9:23:19 PM
So I guess it might be interesting to create a situation in which the consumers are in high need for an utilitarian product. In that case they may prefer the utilitarian product over the hedonic product by using an ipad.
K. Si
10/25/2017 9:20:37 PM
If this is the case, then in normal circumstances people may want a hedonic product more than they want a utilitarian product. Therefore, touch screens render consumers to choose a hedonic product over a utilitarian product more.
K. Si
10/25/2017 9:19:00 PM
Very interesting study! But could the effect depend on consumers' eagerness towards the products? That is, a touch screen helps to shorten the distance between their needs and the products they want.
10/23/2017 9:21:41 PM
In terms of policy implication, I wonder how big are the effects to promote healthy diet using such subtle designs and how these designs can be made into a policy. And if the consumer knows before choosing that these designs are for promoting healthy food, will they change their choices?
10/23/2017 9:05:39 PM
This interesting study identifies how consumers choices are affected by just a subtle design of way to order the product. I guess these subtle designs of computer interfaces have been used by Facebook to increase our clicks on certain posts. Sadly, we are unconsciously controlled by others.