'You don't change consumer behavior with information alone'

As a social psychologist and senior researcher at Wageningen Economic Research, Marleen Onwezen is daily concerned with why consumers make sustainable and healthy choices and how we can influence and guide them. What role does knowledge play in relation to emotion? And how important are social norms, personal values and habits?

The World Food Center Experience has the explicit purpose of making people more aware of how our food is produced and how certain food choices specifically affect our environment or our own health. How does Marleen Onwezen see the possibilities of the WFC Experience when it comes to behavioral change among consumers?

Marleen Onwezen

Great opportunity for consumer research
“I think that the plans for the World Food Center Experience, as I know them now, certainly have potential. Both for raising the awareness of certain groups of consumers and also for targeted consumer research. There is a trend going on to involve citizens more and more in the development of products or policies. That helps with its acceptance. We are still slightly behind this in research. But here too we see a trend towards citizen science, co-creation and participation. By interacting closely with different groups of consumers, you can conduct research more efficiently and find ways to include input from different groups of consumers in research. It can also increase consumer involvement and help increase the support of science. "

"At the same time, you should continue to look at how representative the results are in such research and whether you yourself are already influencing behavior through the research itself."

Consumers decide more on feeling and emotion than on arguments
“The consumer's choice behavior with regard to food is fairly complex. On the one hand there are rational considerations in which cognitive factors play a role (what are the ingredients in this product and what does it cost?) And on the other there are the emotional and social components. In many ways, eating is a social activity and emotion plays a major role. So you can explain why certain behavior should be adjusted better, but respond to the emotion and let people experience what differences in behavior mean, works much better. ”

The new normal
“People are creatures of habit that very much like to confirm themselves to earlier behavior, but also to what is socially desirable or acceptable. Take the protein transition, for example. It is rationally recognized that eating less meat offers several major benefits. Just as good for health as it is for animal welfare and sustainability. And more and more good meat substitutes are becoming available.

Yet the switch from the consumer is still going very slowly. The early adopters are now over, but as long as eating meat on a daily basis is still the norm for many people, the switchover will not take place quickly. Only when many more people reduce meat consumption, and it becomes less and less 'normal', you will see that it goes faster. And for many people, the first acceptable meat substitutes are the products that most resemble meat, such as meat substitutes that look huge or meat or potentially cultured meat. This is the easiest way for consumers to switch. The experience that visitors experience in the WFC Experience therefore has the greatest effect if it fits in well with the already present perception of the visitors. ”

Who are those visitors?
“How you do this also depends on the people who come there. Are the visitors, as it were, already pre-programmed for the will to change? Or is it really an average of the population? Because the Experience wants to be explicitly accessible to the general public, this also requires a diversity of messages and experiences. ”

“Of course that is very interesting for us as researchers. This offers enormous opportunities to engage in a conversation with a less innovative and progressive group. To provide the right message with the right tools to make the click. Entertainment and emotions to make sure that the broad story lands. Precisely to catch that group that would not open itself to it. This is a matter of fine-tuning in order to arrive at the best possible information and experience plan, where you must continue to observe and measure to find out what the effective triggers are now. ”

Involve researchers in design Experience
“It is good that even in the first phase, scientists are already involved in the design and organization of the Experience. On the one hand, you can use existing knowledge about information transfer and behavioral change, while at the same time creating an environment in which additional research is possible so that these techniques can be further refined. For example, innovative ways of transferring information and imaging, and a lot of room for random testing are necessary. Ideally, you should also be able to track individual respondents so that you can classify them into specific groups. With virtual worlds for different groups, who then see different things and gain different experiences. The layouts and set-ups must be flexible in such a way that you can constantly adjust and adjust. ”

Great opportunity for consumer research
“The large group of people who come to the Experience every day naturally offers a huge opportunity for targeted consumer behavior research. The tension between on the one hand wanting to conduct reliable and valid research and on the other hand actually wanting to involve and involve visitors is also very interesting. How do you deal with that? And how do you deal with representativeness?

Many questions therefore still remain for the researchers, but in the first instance the WFC Experience offers great opportunities for raising consumer awareness as well as for conducting research in an intensive and innovative way with the cooperation of those same consumers. It is good that we, as WUR, have been involved from the very beginning, so that together we can use the potential of the WFC Experience. ”