Optimal defaults could change fast-food orders. Companies should go a step further and offer discounts for healthier choices.
Today, the National Restaurant Association rolled out a new healthy eating initiative called Kids Live Well. Expect to see more healthy snacks like "apple fries" at places better known for the classic deep-friend potato version: Burger King, Friendly's, Sizzler, and Au Bon Pain are all participating in the program.
In addition to a small red apple logo stamp that signifies the healthier option (and yes, only one healthy option is needed to qualify here), the initiative could usher in a wider acceptance of "optimal defaults."
Basically, optimal defaults mean that instead of having the option to supersize your BK® Kids Meal, parents will be asked, "Would you like apple fries or French fries?" Fat-free milk or juice will automatically come with kids' meals. In other words, you're going to have to ask for fries and a soda, which could be a small nudge in the right direction.
Optimal defaults for healthier drinks and snacks first took hold at Disney's resorts in 2006, and, as you can see in the chart above, the ordering changes were significant. (The same holds true for things like organ donation: A much higher percentage of people donate in countries where you have to opt out if you don't want to donate your organs.)
In their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein call this kind of change "libertarian paternalism"—a subtle behavior cue that doesn't take away our freedom of choice. As I've written before, though, tiny nudges are just a starting point; given what we're up against, we may need a shove. Next up: Big advertised discounts for apple fries?