The role of causal models and beliefs in interpreting health claims.

Research paper by Adrian P AP Banks, Bernadette B Egan, Charo E CE Hodgkins, Matthew M Peacock, Monique M MM Raats

Indexed on: 11 Jul '18Published on: 11 Jul '18Published in: British Journal of Health Psychology


Health claims on food packaging are regulated to inform and protect consumers; however, many consumers do not accurately interpret the meaning of the claims. Whilst research has shown different types of misinterpretation, it is not clear how those interpretations are formed. The aim of this study was to elicit the causal beliefs and causal models about food and health held by consumers, that is their understanding of the causal relationships between nutrients, health outcomes, and the causal pathways connecting them, and investigate how well this knowledge explains the variation in inferences they draw about health benefits from health claims. A total of 400 participants from Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom were presented with seven authorized health claims and drew inferences about the health benefits of consuming nutrients specified in the claim. Then, their personal causal models of health were elicited along with their belief in the truth and familiarity with the claims. The strength of inferences about health benefits that participants drew from the claims was predicted independently by the strength of the relevant causal pathways within the causal model, and belief in the truth of the claim, but not familiarity with the claim. Participants drew inferences about overall health benefits of the nutrients by extrapolating from their causal models of health. Consumers' interpretation of claims is associated with their belief in the claim and their causal models of health. This prior knowledge is used to interpret the claim and draw inferences about overall health benefits that go beyond the information in the claim. Therefore, efforts to improve consumers' understanding and interpretation of health claims must address both their wider causal models of health and their knowledge of specific claims. Statement of Contribution What is already known on this subject? Health claims influence the likelihood of buying a product. But consumers do not accurately understand or interpret health claims. What does this study add? Consumers' interpretation of health claims is mediated by their personal causal model of health. Consumers draw inferences that go beyond what is claimed by extrapolating from their personal causal model of health. Consumers are also influenced directly by their belief in the claim, but not frequency of exposure to it. © 2018 The British Psychological Society.