INSIGHT DietBB: Do you want to play a game?

Xenia Grote

Example of the game sheets, between Levin has to decide

October 11, 2017

Examination of personality characteristics and food choices in the DONALD study

INSIGHT DietBB Sequenceless, we present scientists and their research questions. We look behind the scenes and ask more closely about the knowledge, which is provided by research, what challenges science poses and who is actually the people behind this research.

Xenia Grote investigates the relationship between personality characteristics of DONALD participants and their food choices.

"Do you want to play a game?" the 8-year-old Levin* is asked after the annual visit of the study center of the DONALD (DOrtmund Nutritional and Anthropometric Longitudinally Designed) study in Dortmund. "Sure", Levin does not hesitate. He follows the staff member in an extra room. Levin is a DONALD-participant in the group of 7- to 9-year-olds, who is tested for three personality characteristics (patience, altruism, and risk-taking). This investigation is part of the DietBB project, in which researchers examine the relationship between personality and food choices.

Levin begins with the first part of the game. He has to decide how many of the seven 20-cent coins lying in front of him he takes home directly or throws into the "magic piggy bank", in which each coin doubles. However, he is going to get the profit not until the next week by mail – difficult decision. After short consideration, he puts six of the coins in the piggy bank, and takes one home directly.

"With this test, the patience of the participants is examined", says Xenia Grote, PhD student in the project DietBB. "By the number of coins inserted, we measure the rate of patience. We assume that a more patient child also makes healthier food choices. Previous research also showed, that these personality characteristics in young children also predict important developments in the adult age. For example, young children, who were more patient, showed better school performance as adolescents than children who could not wait."

The trait patience is also tested in the younger DONALD children from 4 to 6 years. "We are testing the younger children with a modified form of the Marshmallow experiment originally developed by Walter Mischel in the 1960s", says Grote.
Here, the experimenter presents a plate with a candy to the child. She explains that she will leave the room. If she comes back and the candy is still in the same place, the child gets twice the amount of candies. In the course of this procedure the child does not know that the waiting period is 15 minutes. If the child rings the bell provided (which calls the experimenter back) or eats the candy, it gets only this candy. "The period of waiting until the experimenter is back is an indicator for the patience of the child. Does the child wait the whole 15 minutes or does it ring the bell before the time is over? We can link this data with the collected data on food consumption, BMI or even breastfeeding, which are collected continuously in the DONALD study", explains Grote.

For Levin, the game continues with the second part. Two game boards showing two circles each, are lying on the table in front of him. On each board, one circle is for him, one circle for another, unknown child in Dortmund. On one board, there is a star in each circle, on the other board, there are two stars in his and no stars in the circle of the unknown child. "One star stands for 20 cents. You can now decide which game board you want to choose. Either this, in which you and the unknown child each receive a star or that, in which you get two stars and the unknown child gets none", explains the experimenter. This part of the game tests the social preference i.e. how altruistic a child is. It has to decide if it assigns one star to an unknown child – despite his own disadvantage – or takes both stars himself instead.

The last part of the game is about risk-taking. Levin can decide which coin is thrown: the one with seven stars (à 20 cents) on the front and zero stars on the back or the one with three stars on each side. Levin chooses the risk variant 7/0 - and loses. However, fortunately there is still the second round in which he can choose between the 7/0 coin and a coin with 4 stars on each side. This time he decides to go for the second coin.

"Based on these tests, we can elicit personality traits such as patience, altruism, and risk-taking and then investigate, whether there is a link between those traits and the children’s dietary decisions at a young age. For example, whether a child, who is more willing to take a risk is eating differently than a child, who is more risk-averse. Through the longitudinal design of the DONALD study, it will be possible to test whether the personality determinants from childhood affect the later nutritional behaviour. This makes this study so exciting", says Grote enthusiastically.

Levin had a successful day - he takes 2.20 € home and is already looking forward to the mail in the next week.


* pure fiction

Text: Maike Gutmann, DGE (TA 6)

Further information about the project see TA5.