Google workers manipulated into taking more Brussels sprouts, fewer M&Ms

Google workers may be smart, but they can be manipulated into eating Brussels sprouts, a new study suggests.

The research revealed additionally that Googlers generally dislike parsnips, squash and cauliflower — and that they’re prone to serving themselves a whopping quarter-pound of M&Ms at a time.

Now, one might ask what prompted a probe — complete with undercover operatives — into the goings-on at Google’s famed free-food employee cafeterias and snack stations. The answer goes to the bottom line:

“The effects of poor health and obesity cost U.S. companies $225 billion every year,” says a Harvard Business Review article by researchers from the Yale University Center for Customer Insights and the Google “food team.”

In what can only be described as a delicious parallelism with Google’s advertising model, it turns out that putting promotions for a much-despised vegetable beside said vegetable can actually persuade people to buy in.

“In one high-traffic café where Googlers eat free meals, we promoted an unpopular vegetable (beets, parsnips, squash, Brussels sprouts or cauliflower) as the ‘Vegetable of the Day!’ with displays of colorful photos and trivia facts next to a dish containing that vegetable as its main ingredient,” the Google and Yale researchers said. “By placing the campaign posters at the Moment of Truth, right next to the dish — rather than, say, emailing an article about the health benefits of vegetables — we increased the number of employees trying the featured dish by 74 percent and increased the average amount each person served themselves by 64 percent.”

It should be noted that the cafeteria results far surpass the success of Google’s AdWords, which have a click rate of only about 2 percent.

To be sure, it doesn’t appear that the researchers actually watched their subjects eating, so some of the hearty helpings of promoted veggies could’ve ended up in the company’s compost bins after only a bite or two.

The study also involved a cloak-and-dagger operation that produced a stunning finding: coffee can make you fat. The researchers sent “undercover observers” to one of Google’s snack- and drink-stocked break rooms, where the spooks surreptitiously eyeballed more than 1,000 Googlers to see who was grabbing snacks along with drinks, and who was taking only drinks.  The single snack bar offered candy, nuts, dried fruit, chips and cookies. There was one beverage station about 7 feet from the snacks, and another about 18 feet away. People getting drinks from the station closest to the snack bar were 50 percent more likely to grab snacks than those using the further station. “For men, the estimated ‘penalty’ in increased annual snack calorie consumption for using the closer beverage station was calculated to yield about 1 pound of fat per year for each daily cup of coffee!” the researchers reported.

OK, you can get them to eat parsnips, and you can keep snacks out of too-easy reach, but what can you do with Googlers who gobble M&Ms at the rate of a hyperactive 7-year-old on Halloween? It turns out that’s not such a difficult problem to resolve. “We targeted the most popular snack item: bulk M&Ms,” the researchers wrote. “They had been self-serve from bulk bins into 4-ounce cups; most employees filled the cup. We replaced loose M&Ms with small, individually wrapped packages. This simple intervention reduced the average serving by 58 percent, from 308 calories to 130.”

That outcome fits the overall conclusion of the study, that collateral damage from employee food perks can be mitigated without wholesale change: “Small ‘tweaks’ can nudge behavior toward desirable outcomes and yield outsized benefits,” the researchers wrote.


Photo: Brussels sprouts (Erik Campos/The State) 


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