Research Article: You can’t “nudge” nuggets: An investigation of college late-night dining with behavioral economics interventions

Date Published: May 31, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Samuel Bevet, Meredith T. Niles, Lizzy Pope, Rebecca A. Krukowski.


A mixed-methods approach was used to evaluate and improve the “late-night dining” options in a university dining hall. Surveys assessed student desires for late-night offerings, and evaluated students’ habits and motivations during late-night dining. Two interventions were implemented to see if students could be “nudged” into different choice patterns. In the first, a “veggie-heavy” entrée was added at the beginning of the entrée line, so that students would substitute an entrée containing vegetables for the alternatives. In the second, a snack-food bar was set up to cater to students who didn’t want to stand in the long entrée line, and preferred a snack. Data on food choice was collected during the interventions. Survey responses showed significant differences in the reasons females and males utilized late-night dining (p<0.001). We also found that students at late-night dining had a lower emphasis on health than the general student population. Even students at late-night who reported being health-conscious showed no difference in food selections from students who said health was not important (p = 0.883). Veggie-heavy entrées had mild success in increasing vegetable selection. However, veggie-heavy entrées were largely ignored when the other option was chicken nuggets. The snack bar was very popular. Entrée placement and convenience lines may have mild impacts on food selection in a late-night dining environment.

Partial Text

The American College Health Association reports that 33% of college students are overweight or obese [1], and American undergraduates often gain weight while at college [1]. People who become obese or develop poor eating habits during childhood and young adulthood are more likely to struggle with these problems in adulthood [2,3]. This can lead to a variety of illnesses including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer [4].

Research was conducted at the University of Vermont (UVM), which enrolled 9,786 undergraduate students in the 2016–2017 school year. “Late-night dining” was held Monday-Wednesday from 10:00pm-12:30am at an all-you-care-to-eat cafeteria on campus. Minimal food service staffing during these hours restricted the types of food that could be easily served. Options were usually limited to fried processed foods and dishes that could be premade and quickly reheated, such as chicken nuggets, corn dogs, and pulled pork.

From our two surveys, we gain some important insight into the way college students think about late-night food and health. We find key differences between the responses of students completing the Pre-Survey away from late-night dining compared with students taking the At-Late-Night Survey while in the late-night environment. We also see no correlation between students’ health goals and their behaviors during late-night dining.

From our survey data, we concluded that the stated importance of health on food selection did not have a relationship to actual student food choice. We also found that, on average, students not at late-night dining placed a higher value on health than students attending late-night dining. We found a significant difference in the reasons males and females attended late-night dining, with males more likely to go for a meal and females more likely to go to socialize. Although we do not know whether our nudging interventions decreased less healthy food selection, they were effective at increasing vegetable selection in at least some contexts. The exception to this was during chicken nugget nights, where students demonstrated their overwhelming preference for nuggets. For colleges and dining services looking to positively impact student health, it is important to assess the strengths, but also the limitations, of nudging interventions within the dining hall.




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