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October 26, 2010

Cash is Better for your Health

Want to eat healthier? Buy food with cash not credit. So say researchers from Cornell. They looked at actual shoppers and "found that shopping carts had a larger proportion of food items rated as impulsive and unhealthy when shoppers used credit or debit cards versus cash."

Apparently, the psychological "pain" of parting with hard earned hard cash causes people to resist temptation at the checkout line. But credit, with its delayed payments and its own temptations to avoid paying off the monthly balance, encourages impulsive purchases.

The researchers suggest that it may not be a coincidence that obesity has been on the rise at the same time that cash use has declined. Jim Surowiecki has a fantastic piece on procrastination for The New Yorker that among other things talks about our need to put up roadblocks against our own tendencies (i.e. remove rather than resist distractions that keep us from our work). It's funny to think that what you pull out of your wallet at the grocery store might represent a roadblock or a primrose path for unhealthy eating.

Photo credit: Andres Rueda

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Anonymous Julie said...

Interesting take - but isn't the 'more convenient' crappy food often cheaper? I'd think the fresh/organic fruits/veggies seem more expensive to those who are looking out for their wallets... or use cash at the farmer's market!

Blogger Marc said...

I love these kind of studies and the other behavioral work done by such researchers as Wansink.

But a counter example occurs at the Farmers Market, where health officials might want to encourage as much spending as possible: dealing solely with cash and through multiple small transactions can be a pain in the neck (and lead to grumpy responses from the vendors when all you have are 20 dollar bills from the ATM). So what an ideal world would have is a cashless system at the FM so the "pain" of payment is temporarily hidden. I wonder if a potential design could revolve around transit cards, wherein each farmer is treated like a different transit agency and tapping your card on their reader debits the right amount from your account, just like tapping the card on the reader on a bus or subway gate will transfer money to the correct agency. Logistically messy on the software side, but since there are hundreds of readers out there on every bus across many transit agencies, perhaps not completely out of the question someday. In Hong Kong, for example, people can use their transit card (the "Octopus") to pay for goods and services at a gazillion different places.

Or perhaps those tap and go credit cards issued by various vendors could work.

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