What can trump disgust? Cash? Or the fear of missing out?

Eating insects is still unusual in most western countries. It provokes disgust and horror, which is deeply felt and can be hard to overcome. But when people do take the plunge, they tend to remark that they quickly forgot what the fuss was about.

As the interest in entomophagy grows, a lot of stakeholders – from nutritionists to the early entrepreneurs – will be looking for that magic persuasive factor. What does it take to get people to eat an insect?

Our formidable power to persuade ourselves

Some will immediately think ‘money’. What would someone do for a hundred quid or bucks? It’s the basis of many a game show, and incidentally this is the first thing many people associate with eating insects – the so-called ‘bush-tucker’ challenges of reality TV shows where we watch celebrities choke down a wriggling insect in the pursuit of (more) wealth and fame.

But others would like to take a more optimistic view of human nature. Surely we’re rational beings? Don’t fact and reason shape our decisions more than money?

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Of course, it’s never this simple. Our decisions stem from an extraordinarily complex list of factors, many of which we might not even be aware of. So what is it that tips the balance when it comes to a strong aversion like chewing a mealworm?

Two interesting case studies might shed a little light on this when it comes to edible insects.

In the US, a Stanford University researcher ran a ‘cash vs. disgust’ experiment – but added a bit more nuance. Sandro Ambuehl tested the influence of cash on the process of self-persuasion. In his study, participants had to choose whether or not to eat some insects. Initially though, they could choose to watch one of two videos. The first was all about the great benefits of bugs – their protein levels, delicious flavours, and so on. The second talked about how disgusting and potentially risky it all is.

Here’s the cash part: some had been offered $30 to eat the insects, some $3. And the results showed that they wanted to persuade themselves when more money was at stake, because those offered $30 overwhelmingly chose to watch the positive video, and were much more likely to eat the insects. So it’s not just that more money led to more bug-eating. More money, in this case, made people choose to be persuaded – rather than to learn about the risks and downsides.

Social pressure is very good in making people give it a try.

BUGSfeed spoke to Sandro Ambuehl about the implications of his experiment. “It’s an effective strategy for getting people to eat more insects”, he told us. “Once they’ve convinced themselves (for which you paid them), they’ll be more willing to eat insects, perhaps for free.”

Ambuehl stressed, however, that his approach is just one of many. “From my own experience, social pressure is very good in making people give it a try.”

Social pressure – isn’t that just ‘following the crowd’? Most people like to imagine they have a bit more autonomy than that. But wanting to join in with something that others are doing is a well-established human trait. Or to put it in reverse - ‘fear of missing out’ - a new(ish) buzzword in marketing. And like all good buzzwords it’s become a catchy acronym: FOMO.

It seems that for something as aversion-heavy as eating insects, FOMO might be the answer. In a mall in Leeds recently, shoppers were the unwitting guinea pigs of the social psychologists: over two-hour periods, a stall offering free insect snacks tested different messages – emphasising the nutritional benefits, or the sense of adventure. Another made it sound normal: something to try at home. But by far the most successful message said: “Don’t miss your chance!”

Want to make people eat insects? 'FOMO' might be the answer

The experiment was a joint effort between media company Kinetic UK and new edible insect sellers Grub, along with behavioural specialists from Ogilvy Change. Kinetic UK’s head of insight Jennie Sallows told BUGSfeed: “FOMO is really deep-rooted in psychology. You can tell people the rational benefits and it works to an extent, but it’s not as effective as fear of missing out.”

Video: Ogilvy Change

An enthusiastic entomophagist herself now, Sallows is interested in finding the messages that pull people on a long-term basis. She says cash incentives are “short-term”. “They’re not sustainable - people will try something for money, but they won’t keep doing it. We want to look at more subtle messages.”

Is it a little worrying how easily swayed we seem to be? Arguably it’s not because we do this sort of thing all the time. Financial incentive might be the easiest thing to prove in a laboratory setting, but people talk themselves into certain actions for a vast array of reasons.

For instance, I might want to eat less meat for environmental reasons. I see a certain meat-replacement product on the supermarket shelves. I’ve heard various things about it. One friend tells me how it’s basically fungus. Isn’t that disgusting? Fungus! Euch. They make it in big tubs and it’s chewy and unappetising, she might say.

But another friend raves about how delicious the fungus-burgers are. “Tastes better than meat!” she’s saying. “No gristly bits!” I really want to enjoy the burgers. They are supposedly better for me than meat, and don’t come with the guilt I associate with consuming industrially-produced beef. So which friend do I choose to listen to most attentively?

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Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Perhaps then it’s unrealistic to single out one factor in isolation, but it’s definitely worth bearing in mind just how strong our powers of persuasion are. If disgust towards insects is a learned reaction, could it be a question of ‘mind over matter’ to shift that disgust into curiosity and perhaps even enthusiasm?

What could persuade you to take the plunge?

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