Applying behavioural economics to food choices.

The project will develop and test a behavioural economics intervention – specifically the generation of counterfactual thoughts – on improving healthy eating.

Department: Psychology

Supervised by: Dr Rachel McCloy

The Placement Project

Behavioural Economics is a hot topic in UK Government policy, with the Government’s Behavioural Insights team - or “Nudge Unit” - driving forwards the application of psychological research to wide-ranging policy issues from increasing tax payments to encouraging organ donor registration. The placement student would be involved in a project that aims to apply behavioural economics to the major public policy issue of unhealthy dietary choices. The placement student would work on an experiment which forms part of a series of exciting and novel studies focussed on using counterfactual generation to alter people’s food choices. Counterfactuals are the “if only…” thoughts we generate after a negative event e.g. “If only I’d eaten less chocolate, I wouldn’t have put on so much weight”. The study will develop a method of generating food-focussed counterfactual thoughts and test the effects of this method on improving food choice. The student will be involved in the initial design stages of the intervention method, then help to develop materials, collect data and analyse results. This is an excellent opportunity for a student to be involved in all stages of a behavioural economics experiment conducted in a policy relevant area. This work forms part of a wider inter-disciplinary project with the Centre for Food Security (based in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development) and is developing with input from the Office of National Statistics, Defra, and the Food Standards Agency to ensure maximum Government impact.


The student will have the opportunity to contribute to the design of the experimental intervention (~15% of time). They will work with the supervisor to develop materials to assess the efficacy of this intervention (~10% of time). Then they will then run the study – recruiting participants and collecting the data (~30% of time) and analyse the results (~25% of time). Finally participants will provide a write-up of their study and (if the study results in publishable findings) be involved in the write-up of findings for ultimate submission to a journal (~20% of time). The student will focus on one study and gain practical experience in all stages of the research process from start to finish.

Skills, knowledge and experience required

The student should have an interest in behavioural economics and/or the application of psychological research to UK policy issues. They should have a basic understanding of experimental design and be familiar with using SPSS. Experience of conducting previous questionnaire or lab-based studies is desirable but not essential.

Skills which will be developed during the placement

The student will develop skills in applying academic research to public policy issues. They will gain insight into the issues to be considered when designing research aimed at having a direct impact on Government departments. Students will gain experience in designing psychological experiments, developing materials, running the studies, entering the data and analysing the results. The supervisor will work closely with the student at all stages to help them develop new skills and expertise in each area. If the study results in publishable findings, the student would be involved in the write-up of results and included as an author on any publications. General transferable skills to be developed include team-working, report writing and presentations skills.

Place of Work

Department of Psychology

Hours of Work


Approximate Start and End Dates (not fixed)

Monday 13 June 2016 - Friday 22 July 2016

How to Apply

Please send a CV and a statement of interest by 18th March to Dr. Rachel McCloy ( You will be interviewed by Dr. Rachel McCloy and Dr. Emily Hancock, the postdoctoral research associate you will also be working with, after applications have been received.

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