Leveraging the happy meal effect: Substituting food with modest nonfood incentives decreases portion size choice

Martin Reimann, Antoine Bechara, Deborah MacInnis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Despite much effort to decrease food intake by altering portion sizes, "super-sized" meals are the preferred choice of many. This research investigated the extent to which individuals can be subtly incentivized to choose smaller portion sizes. Three randomized experiments (2 in the lab and 1 in the field) established that individuals' choice of full-sized food portions is reduced when they are given the opportunity to choose a half-sized version with a modest nonfood incentive. This substitution effect was robust across different nonfood incentives, foods, populations, and time. Experiment 1 established the effect with children, using inexpensive headphones as nonfood incentives. Experiment 2-a longitudinal study across multiple days-generalized this effect with adults, using the mere chance to win either gift cards or frequent flyer miles as nonfood incentives. Experiment 3 demonstrated the effect among actual restaurant customers who had originally planned to eat a full-sized portion, using the mere chance to win small amounts of money. Our investigation broadens the psychology of food portion choice from perceptual and social factors to motivational determinants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)276-286
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Choice substitution
  • Inexpensive toy incentives
  • Portion size
  • Psychology of food choice
  • Uncertain monetary incentives

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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