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How Bribing Kids Gets Them to Eat Their Vegetables

Rewards for eating yucky vegetables really makes kids like them—and the effect sticks.

The British scientist Jane Wardle has some parental advice when it comes to getting kids to eat vegetables they don't like. Bribe them. This is a benevolent kind of corruption, trust me.

In a recent study published in Psychological Science, she recruited 344 children, between the ages of 4 and 6, at school. With their parents' permission, she gave them each 2.5 grams (this is an experiment, right?) of carrot, red pepper, sugar snap pea, cabbage, cucumber, and celery. The kids then rated the veggies.

Now, here's where it starts sounding like real life. The researchers chose one of the three lowest-rated veggies as a "target"; they wanted to convince the kid to eat that cabbage or red peppers they professed not to like.

As Gareth Cook writes in the Boston Globe:

Over the course of two weeks, Wardle compared doing nothing with three different strategies. One was simply asking the kids to try the vegetable. In another, the kids were lavishly praised (“Brilliant, you’re a great taster!’’) And in the third, the kids were offered a small reward (a sticker) for their efforts.

The rewards... enticed kids to try the vegetable more. But the big surprise is that, three months later, the sticker kids were still eating substantially more of it. (The praised kids also ate more, though not as much.) This is a key insight into human behavior: Temporary rewards can bring permanent change.


Which means that kids really did end up liking vegetables, and suggests that material rewards, despite the prevailing wisdom, might not be so bad. A little incentive—a carrot on a stick, even if it's not a literal kind—may prove useful in improving a kid's eating habits.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user opensourceway

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