It seems like a good idea, a restaurant posting its nutrition information so that customers can tailor their diets. Knowledge is power, after all. But a recent analysis of consumer behavior shows this ideal isn’t being lived up to; some two-thirds of restaurant goers never use the calorie labels as part of their dietary decisions.

No more than six months after the American Medical Association (AMA) formally began recognizing obesity as a disease, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found the overwhelming majority of fast food and restaurant patrons don’t use posted nutrition information to build a healthy diet. Sodium intake is ignored, fat content irrelevant. Despite the visible reminders that one meal may satisfy half a day’s worth of calories, people indulge anyway. Why? The answer may have less to do with consumer health and more to do with consumer motivation.

Blinded By Burgers

First, the study: Using data from the 2009 national HealthStyles survey, which learned about people’s health-related knowledge and behaviors, the CDC looked at responses from 4,363 participants who were asked about how often they read calorie information at fast food and chain restaurants, and if they do, how they used that information. The breakdown was mixed. Ten percent of respondents said they never go to fast food or chain restaurants, while another 10 percent went three times a week. Over half the respondents fell somewhere in the middle, visiting at least once a week.

Extrapolated countrywide, the number of eyes lain on calorie labels is in the tens of millions. This should be encouraging, ever since the 2010 introduction of Obamacare’s calorie label mandate, which required chain restaurants with more than 20 locations nationwide to display their food’s nutrition information. In theory, Americans have had greater access to their food’s healthfulness than ever before, which should make responsible decision-making much easier.

“Ideally we hope that restaurant patrons see the calorie information posted at fast food and other restaurants and choose a meal with fewer calories,” Katherine Bauer of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, told Reuters Health. Unfortunately, “the evidence is really mixed about whether that actually happens.”

Only 36 percent of the people surveyed said they ever read the calorie labels — a paltry rate that is made slightly more hopeful given that 95 percent of those people use that data to inform their choices. But what makes the data even more intriguing is that the people more likely to make up that 36 percent aren’t the people who see the labels most frequently. The people most likely to read the labels and make decisions based on their content are the people who come in the least often.

This behavior may seem backward — knowledge is power, right? People who better understand their consumption choices can use opposing information as a tool for change. They can stop, shift gears, and turn their destructive habits around — realizing, for instance, that a 900-calorie No. 3 meal doesn’t have to be their default option. But therein lies the problem with warning labels: They miss their target.

What We Can Learn From Smokers

As tools for promoting consumer health, warning labels have the best of intentions. On cigarette boxes, the picture of a skull and crossbones beneath a high-resolution shot of a tarred lung is meant to dissuade, to remind people that they aren’t immune to such consequences. Motivation doesn’t work this way, psychologists have found. Steven Reiss, professor emeritus at the Ohio State University and author of Who Am I: The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Actions and Determine Our Personalities, argues motivation derives not from a need to convince, but from an appeal to existing values.

“To motivate another person, you have to appeal to their values. This may seem straightforward, but it isn't. Too often we try to motivate others by indoctrinating them in our values rather than by appealing to theirs,” he wrote last year in the Huffington Post. “People have a natural tendency to think their values are best, not just for themselves, but for everyone.”

Consider a recently published study on cigarette sales that illustrates Reiss’ point. Even with the gruesome, bloody images featured on the cigarettes’ packaging, researchers found the gore of certain packs actually made the risky behavior seem more attractive. Smokers are known to be less risk-averse than the general population, so it makes sense that a picture of a dismembered trachea may reinforce the smoker’s values, and, as Reiss put it, affirm their “natural tendency to think their values are best.”

Arguably, the same is true for calorie labels. Heavy consumers of fast food see the labels front and center yet often make unhealthy choices anyway. Approaching the problem from strictly a health point of view is shortsighted, because health isn’t the only priority being considered, if it’s a priority at all. The mechanization of chain restaurants allows faster turnaround time on customer orders, and it’s this expediency that attracts consumers. Couple this with reduced food costs, and it’s no wonder people who eat out three times per week don’t notice the calorie labels: They don’t have time.

"When people have looked at specific cities like New York, Seattle, and Philadelphia, awareness of the calorie labels increased quite a bit from before calories were required to be posted in those cities," Bauer said. "However, with the exception of the Seattle study that saw decreases in calories purchased among women and from coffee shops, these studies haven't seen any changes in calories purchased before and after menu labeling laws went into effect."

Striking A Balance

In the end, the fix is simple. If businesses want to appeal to their customers’ actual motivations as well as promote consumer health, they’ll keep the turnaround times and costs low but introduce healthier options. As Reiss notes, “people are motivated to assert their values,” so posting calorie labels and expecting people to read them as they scramble to catch a bus or try to calculate how they’ll get the fullest on five dollars, signals an imperfect understanding of consumer motivation.

“Knowing how calorie information is used,” lead researcher Holly Wethington noted, “can help us better understand whether nutrition education could be useful and the types of messages regarding calories that are most helpful at the point of purchase."