Policy Point Wednesday: Commercials and Reward Sensitivity

Policy Point Wednesday: Commercials and Reward Sensitivity

As a probably too-frequent television watcher, I've noticed (while flipping quickly past) that a large proportion of current infomercials advertise exercise programs. Even though junk food is advertised heavily, there are plenty of commercials supporting healthy behaviors - so why is it we aren't all exercising frenetically instead of inhaling french fries and soda?

One researcher in Queensland, Australia might have an answer.  Dr. Natalie Loxton of the University of Queensland noticed that while everyone is exposed fairly equally to junk food advertising, only some people become obese.  She theorized that reward sensitivity, a trait which leads people to seek external reinforcement for pleasure - for instance, food or drugs, might be a factor in how they respond to commercials.  Reward sensitivity has been noted in both drug addicts and obese people.

This fairly small study involved 75 men and women, who watched a 30-minute film with embedded commercials and rated their reaction to food in the commercials and their desire to eat.  The commercials either showed junk foods, healthy foods, or no food at all.  Not surprisingly, participants who showed a high degree of reward sensitivity tended to show an increased desire for junk food - but more interestingly, no increase was noted for healthy foods, and there was a decreased desire for food if no food commercials were shown.  Reward-sensitive women in particular tended to express a liking for junk food images.

What I find most interesting about this study is that, apparently, commercials did not produce an increased desire for healthy foods.  I wish I knew more about the specifics of this study, but it might help explain why some people become obese while others do not, but also that large corporations may see a larger return when marketing junk foods rather than their healthier alternatives.

Filed under: Food News

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