Fruit, chocolate and news with feeling

Ever since I heard the Undercover Economist Tim Harford‘s “The Logic of Lifelecture at the LSE I have been banging on about the “fruit versus chocolate” experiment to anyone who will listen. Now I’m afraid I’m going to share it here.

In short:

“the experimenters offered the subjects a snack: fruit or chocolate. Seven out of ten subjects asked for chocolate. But when the experimenters offered other subjects a different choice, the answer was different too: ‘I’ll bring you a snack next week. What would you like then, fruit or chocolate?’ Three-quarters of subjects chose fruit.”

This, Tim argues, demonstrates the theory that human beings have two competing systems for decision making. One, the dopamine system, is geared towards rewarding immediate gratification. The other, the cognitive system, prioritises long-term planning.

When the brain is presented with the possibility of immediate gratification (such as the offer of chocolate), the dopamine system overides the cognitive system (prioritising the unhealthy sugar rush with the healthier fruit option).

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between this and news consumption patterns. Could it be that if the experiment replaced fruit and chocolate with the FT and The Sun you’d get a similar result?

It appears I’m not alone observing the connection. Last year Seamus McCauley, Strategic Analyst at Associated Northcliffe Digital suggested that by “unbundling” news stories from the paper onto the web, readers may increasingly choose to indulge in celebrity gossip or quirky stories (chocolate) and abandon “hard news” (fruit).

I’m not sure I’d go that far – news is still a pretty well read section on any news website I’ve worked on. Also, as Seamus’s commenters point out, you can balance your dopamine-hungry browsing by ensuring you get your “daily fruit” with RSS subscriptions or e-newsletters.

But the idea that there may be some way to make “harder” news less like fruit and more like chocolate is an enticing one.

It sent me off down a long and bizarre train of thought equating different ways to eat fruit (dip it in chocolate, chop it into bite-size chunks, etc.) with various methods of news consumption.

In the end I realised that, for me, it was all about the smoothies.

In particular, Innocent Smoothies.

First of all, smoothies are a pretty easy way to boost your fruit intake.

Also, whatever you think about their “twee” advertising (and recent Coca-Cola investment announcement)  Innocent have been widely praised for their customer-focused approach.

The company works hard to make people feel good about buying their product. When customers contact the brand, Innocent try to make them feel valued. This is what distinguishes it from the many other (probably just as good) smoothie brands in the market.

So, could news organisations learn anything from this?

Well, I guess there is already a lot of talk about how news brands can present content in easy-to-consume formats – whether that be a great website, iPhone app or e-Reader.

But what about the service? How good do news brands make people feel about reading their stories?  Do you feel valued as a customer by any particular news organisation?