Bake Sale Bans and Psychological Reactance Theory: A Critique of New York City's Department of Education School Food Provisions - Katie Noddin
The 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) estimates that 18.1% of US adolescents ages 12-19 years are obese -- a statistic that has dramatically increased from 5% since 1976 (1). This alarming statistic can be attributed to a number of factors, but social science research has shown that the environment, in particular, can play a significant role in forming adolescent dietary habits. Roughly 98% of US high schools provide soft-drink vending machines, and survey data (National Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals) indicate that most adolescents, by age 13, are consuming more soft drinks than 100% fruit juices, milk, or water (2). Since adolescents are a particularly impressionable cohort and often make decisions based on external influences, more research has begun to target school environments and social norms surrounding food choices and nutrition.
While environmental changes may be effective ways to promote positive behavior and decision-making when it comes to food choices and healthy eating (3-7), it is important that interventions which aim to control adolescent environments approach the situation carefully, given adolescents’ natural inclination for rebellion and their need for independence (3). This paper will critique the Department of Education School Food and Nutrition Program in New York City, and their recent mandate in eliminating bake sales as part of the new provisions in their school nutrition program.
On June 29, 2009, the New York City Department of Education released a memo (8-10) indicating new guidelines for improved nutrition and wellness in its schools. The memo was released in response to the roughly 40% of students who are overweight in the NYC school system, and includes several changes that have the potential to change the eating habits of NYC’s youth. In laymen's terms, the memo states that vending machines be removed unless they are approved by the DOE, and that items sold in vending machines, school stores, and a la carte menus must be on an approved, specified list of snacks that meet nutrition guidelines as prescribed by the Office of School Food. These snacks include but are not limited to: Kellogg's Nutri-Grain Cereal Bars, Nature Valley Crunch Granola Bars, Linden's Chocolate Chip 2-pack Cookies, Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili Chips, and Pop-Tarts Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon toaster pastries (11). These items are only available to students outside of meal times during school hours and after 6pm. The memo also prohibits the use of bake sales and other fundraisers except for once per month, after the last lunch period. In addition, at times when bake sales are allowed, only items from the approved list (mentioned above) can be sold.
Like many school nutrition programs across the nation, these guidelines are administered with the intention of improving the high school student's environment, by promoting healthy dietary habits and helping students to make "healthy" snack choices. However, the NYC Department of Education's choice to eliminate bake sales as part of their School Food environment plan is something that has rarely been seen. Bake sales are a fundamental part of the adolescent community, and removal of them has the potential to backfire, creating a classic phenomenon known as psychological reactance.
Psychological Reactance Theory
Psychological reactance, as defined by Jack W. Brehm, is the "motivational state directed toward the re-establishment of the free behaviors which have been eliminated or threatened with elimination." The theory suggests that most people, regardless of whether they actually have freedom, believe that they have a set of "free behaviors" that they can choose from in any situation. These "free behaviors" are simple, realistic behaviors, such as choosing to smoke a cigarette, or deciding to walk home from school rather than take a bus. Reactance occurs whenever a choice behaviors is eliminated or is threatened to be eliminated, and is motivated by the individual's basic need for self-sufficiency, independence, and the need to effect his or her own environment (12).
Reactance can manifest itself in a number of ways, including ignoring the persuasive attempt at hand, separating oneself from the source of the elimination, or producing even more of the unfavorable behavior in an attempt to restore freedom and to gain back what was lost (13). The magnitude of reactance produced from the eliminated behavior can be a direct function of the importance of the behavior to the individual and the proportion of the free behaviors that are eliminated. Social and environmental factors, including the explicitness of the message, the types of persuasion tactics used in delivering the message, who is doing the persuasion, and the creation of scarcity in a desired object or behavior may also contribute to the magnitude of arousal (12).
Proportion and Importance of Eliminated Behavior
The proportion and importance of the eliminated free behaviors to the individual are key catalysts in determining not only if there will be reactance in a given situation, but also the magnitude of which the reactance will manifest itself (14). Importance, according to Brehm, “is a direct function of the unique instrumental value which that behavior has for the satisfaction of needs…no other behavior in the individual’s repertoire of behaviors would satisfy the same need or set of needs.” As in many communities across the nation, bake sales hold an important role in the New York City school district. Aside from being a source of arguably homemade, natural baked goods and other food items, bake sales are a simple, effective, and necessary way to earn money for sports teams, clubs, field trips, and other school-related events. As a result of the ban, many sports teams and clubs have been left to find alternative ways of raising money –some that are costly and ultimately do not sell as well as baked goods. Thus, the elimination of bake sales has turned one important eliminated freedom into several other eliminated freedoms, including time and money. By eliminating bake sales, a highly valued funding resource for sports and clubs, adolescents may be more apt to associate the healthy eating initiative with losing something of value. As a result, adolescents may miss the DOE's message entirely, that better food choices need to be made for better health.
Coercive tactics, social influence, and impersonal elimination of behavior
Traditional psychological reactance theory suggests that coercive attempts of social influence are more likely to result in noncompliance or overt behavioral opposition (14). Research shows that this phenomenon is particularly true with adolescents, who are generally more easily persuaded into a belief or action when the desired behavior is elicited in a warm, embraceable manner. One particular study involving different types of parental tactics and adolescents’ eating habits indicated that low levels of parental warmth are associated with higher levels of negative emotions and behavioral resistance; the opposite was true for reports of high levels of parental warmth (15). Similarly, while the New York City DOE has favorable intentions of improving the lives of the children and adolescents in the community, by the removal of bake sales, the intervention is approached in a fashion that may negatively affect students’ behaviors towards healthy eating. When adolescents are faced with a clearly explicit message (i.e. being told that they will eat more healthily by the removal of bake sales), a feeling of external manipulation, coupled with their previous beliefs and self-assurance surrounding their own dietary behaviors can greatly increase the reactance towards the message (16).
Similarly, adolescents may experience increased reactance when there is an impersonal, dissimilar relationship between them and the messenger. The Department of Education consists of a group of people that students likely do not relate to, or rarely see as a cohesive unit that affects their everyday lives. Adolescents may have increased reactance simply because the message of eating healthy (by way of a changed environment) is enforced by an entity that is not close to them (17). In this sense, adolescents who may naturally comply and agree with the new School Food provisions are less likely to given their relationship with the Department of Education.
Creating a scarcity of a desired product or free behavior can lead to reactance as well. In fact, banning or creating a shortage of a desired item or behavioral freedom can actually increase its attractiveness, particularly when the free behavior is important and was at one time readily available to the individual (18) . One study by Worchel, Lee, and Adewole (1975) showed that people placed more value and attractiveness on commodities (in their case, cookies) when they were scarce than when they were abundant (19). Similarly, a study by Mazis, Settle, and Leslie (1973) showed that housewives in Miami who had been banned from purchasing household cleaners with phosphates (pollutants) were more likely to show negative views and oppositional behaviors towards governmental impositions on general environmental problems, when compared to housewives in Tampa who were not affected by the ban (20). The NYC DOE's program has created a similar situation, where bake sales and other snack commodities that were once available are no longer available except for at designated times. Reducing the availability of these snacks can create an increased desire for them, only invoking more interest in consuming unhealthy snacks outside of the designated time frames -- the exact opposite outcome of what the intervention is meant to prevent.
School Food Environment Manipulation: It Can Work!
The idea that environmental changes can improve the dietary behaviors of adolescents is not a new concept. In fact, school food environment changes have been implemented all over the country in many different ways, and many have the potential to be truly effective. One study evaluated a pricing scheme which reduced the prices of healthier foods, making them more accessible to students. This particular intervention was effective because it placed the control and decision-making back in the hands of the adolescents, rather than forcing a decision upon them. As a result of this intervention, healthier snack purchases increased amongst the student body (4).
In addition to an environmental intervention that allows for more autonomous control amongst adolescents, it is important that the intervention itself be attached to a very clear, explicit message that can be easily grasped and internalized. Adolescents need to associate healthy eating with an intrinsic need or desire, rather than simply "not having access to junk food" or "paying less for healthy food." For most adolescents, food is intrinsically linked to self-identity, self-concept, independence, friendships, and security, and removing any source of food can be much more damaging than giving up the food itself (3). An intervention that delivers a message of self-worth and that changes social norms surrounding food could be effective in changing the way that adolescents eat. An example of this would be an environmental approach that delivers messages of self-worth, like posters promoting an attractive, healthy lifestyle, with lists of the new low prices for fruits and vegetables.
Though the New York City Department of Education meant well by changing the school food environment, their approach needs to be adapted to maximize its success and decrease the potential for psychological reactance. The DOE needs to recognize its audience, and promote healthy dietary behavior by placing control, autonomy, and decision-making in the hands of adolescents.
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