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    Original Essays | November 7, 2014

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Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think


Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think Cover

ISBN13: 9780553384482
ISBN10: 0553384481
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Chapter One

The Mindless Margin

Did you ever eat the last piece of crusty, dried-out chocolate cake even though it tasted like chocolate-scented cardboard? Ever finish eating a bag of French fries even though they were cold, limp, and soggy? It hurts to answer questions like these.

Why do we overeat food that doesnt even taste good?

We overeat because there are signals and cues around us that tell us to eat. Its simply not in our nature to pause after every bite and contemplate whether were full. As we eat, we unknowingly-mindlessly-look for signals or cues that weve had enough. For instance, if theres nothing remaining on the table, thats a cue that its time to stop. If everyone else has left the table, turned off the lights, and were sitting alone in the dark, thats another cue. For many of us, as long as there are still a few milk-soaked Fruit Loops left in the bottom of the cereal bowl, there is still work to be done. It doesnt matter if were full, and it doesnt matter if we dont even really like Fruit Loops. We eat as if it is our mission to finish them.

Stale Popcorn and Frail Willpower

Take movie popcorn, for instance. There is no “right” amount of popcorn to eat during a movie. There are no rules of thumb or FDA guidelines. People eat however much they want depending on how hungry they are and how good it tastes. At least thats what they say.

My graduate students and I think different. We think that the cues around us-like the size of a popcorn bucket-can provide subtle but powerful suggestions about how much one should eat. These cues can short-circuit a persons hunger and taste signals, leading them to eat even if theyre not hungry and even if the food doesnt taste very good.

If you were living in Chicago a few years back, you might have been our guest at a suburban theater matinee. If you lined up to see the 1:05 p.m. Saturday showing of Mel Gibsons new action movie, Payback, you would have had a surprise waiting for you: a free bucket of popcorn.

Every person who bought a ticket-even though many of them had just eaten lunch-was given a soft drink and either a medium-size bucket of popcorn or a large-size, bigger-than-your-head bucket. They were told that the popcorn and soft drinks were free and that we hoped they would be willing to answer a few concession stand-related questions after the movie.

There was only one catch. This wasnt fresh popcorn. Unknown to the moviegoers and even to my graduate students, this popcorn had been popped five days earlier and stored in sterile conditions until it was stale enough to squeak when it was eaten.

To make sure it was kept separate from the rest of the theater popcorn, it was transported to the theater in bright yellow garbage bags-the color yellow that screams “Biohazard.” The popcorn was safe to eat, but it was stale enough one moviegoer said it was like eating Styrofoam packing peanuts. Two others, forgetting they had been given it for free, asked for their money back. During the movie, people would eat a couple bites, put the bucket down, pick it up again a few minutes later and have a couple more bites, put it back down, and continue. It might not have been good enough to eat all at once, but they couldnt leave it alone.

Both popcorn containers-medium and large-had been selected to be big enough that nobody could finish all the popcorn. And each person was given his or her own individual bucket so there would be no sharing.

As soon as the movie ended and the credits began to roll, we asked everyone to take their popcorn with them. We gave them a half-page survey (on bright biohazard-yellow paper) that asked whether they agreed to statements like “I ate too much popcorn,” by circling a number from 1 (strongly disagree) to 9 (strongly agree). As they did this, we weighed their remaining popcorn.

When the people who had been given the large buckets handed their leftover popcorn to us, we said, “Some people tonight were given medium-size buckets of popcorn, and others, like yourself, were given these large-size buckets. We have found that the average person who is given a large-size container eats more than if they are given a medium-size container. Do you think you ate more because you had the large size?” Most disagreed. Many smugly said, “That wouldnt happen to me,” “Things like that dont trick me,” or “Im pretty good at knowing when Im full.”

That may be what they believed, but it is not what happened.

Weighing the buckets told us that the big-bucket group people ate an average of 173 more calories of popcorn. That is roughly the equivalent of 21 more dips into the bucket. Clearly the quality of food is not what led them to eat. Once these moviegoers started in on their bucket, the taste of the popcorn didnt matter. Even though some of them had just had lunch, people who were given the big buckets ate an average of 53 percent more than those given medium-size buckets. Give them a lot, and they eat a lot.

And this was five-day-old, stale popcorn!

Weve run other popcorn studies, and the results were always the same, however we tweaked the details. It didnt matter if our moviegoers were in Pennsylvania, Illinois, or Iowa, and it didnt matter what kind of movie was showing, all of our popcorn studies led to the same conclusion. People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period. It doesnt matter whether the popcorn is fresh or fourteen days old, or whether they were hungry or full when they sat down for the movie.

Did people eat because they liked the popcorn? No. Did they eat because they were hungry? No. They ate because of all the cues around them-not only the size of the popcorn bucket, but also other factors Ill discuss later, such as the distracting movie, the sound of people eating popcorn around them, and the eating scripts we take to movie theaters with us. All of these were cues that signaled it was okay to keep on eating and eating.

Does this mean we can avoid mindless eating simply by replacing large bowls with smaller bowls? Thats one piece of the puzzle, but there are a lot more cues that can be engineered out of our lives. As you will see, these hidden persuaders can even take the form of a tasty description on a menu or a classy name on a wine bottle. Simply thinking that a meal will taste good can lead you to eat more. You wont even know it happened.

As Fine as North Dakota Wine

The restaurant is open only 24 nights a year and serves an inclusive prix-fixe theme dinner each night. A nice meal will cost you less than $25, but to get it you will have to phone for reservations and be seated at either 5:30 or 7:00 sharp. Despite these drawbacks, there is often a waiting list.

Welcome to the Spice Box. The Spice Box looks like a restaurant; it sounds like a restaurant; and it smells like a restaurant. To the people eating there, it is a restaurant. To the people working there, its a fine dining lab sponsored by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Spice Box is a lab where culinary hopefuls learn whether a new recipe will fly or go down in flames. Its a lab where waitstaff discover whether a new approach will sizzle or fizzle. Its also a lab where consumer psychologists have figured out what makes a person nibble a little or inhale it all.

There is a secret and imaginary line down the middle of the dining room in the Spice Box. On one Thursday, diners on the left side of the room might be getting a different version of the shrimp coconut jambalaya entrée than those on the right. On the next Thursday, diners on the left side will be given a menu with basic English names for the food, while those on the right will be given a menu with French-sounding names. On the Thursday after that, diners on the left side will hear each entrée described by a waiter, while those on the right will read the same descriptions off the menu. At the end of the meal, sometimes we ask the diners some short survey questions, but other times we carefully weigh how much food our guests have left on their plates. That way we dont have to rely on what they say, we can rely on what they do-which version of shrimp coconut jamba- laya they polished off.

But on one dark Thursday night in the first week of February 2004, something a little more mischievous was planned for diners who braved the snow to keep their reservations. They were getting a full glass of Cabernet Sauvignon before their meal. Totally free. Compliments of the house.

This cabernet was not a fine vintage. In fact, it was a $2 bottle sold under the brand name Charles Shaw-popularly known as Two Buck Chuck. But our diners didnt know this. In fact, all the Charles Shaw labels had been soaked off the bottles and replaced with professionally designed labels that were 100 percent fake.

Those on the left side of the room were being offered wine from the fictional Noahs Winery, a new California label. The winerys classic, italicized logo was enveloped by a simple graphic of grapes and vines. Below this, the wine proudly announced that it was “NEW from California.” After the diners arrived and were seated, the waiter or waitress said, “Good evening and welcome to the Spice Box. As youre deciding what you want to eat this evening, were offering you a complimentary glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Its from a new California winery called Noahs Winery.” Each person was then poured a standard 3.8-ounce glass of wine.

About an hour later, after they had finished their meal and were paying for it, we weighed the amount of wine left in each glass and the amount of the entrée left on each plate. We also had a record of when each diner had started eating and when they paid their bill and left.

Diners on the right side of the room had exactly the same dining experience-with one exception. The waiter or waitresss carefully scripted welcome introduced a cabernet “from a new North Dakota winery called Noahs Winery.” The label was identical to that on the first bottle, except for the words “NEW from North Dakota.”

There is no Bordeaux region in North Dakota, nor is there a Burgundy region, nor a Champagne region. There is, however, a Fargo region, a Bismarck region, and a Minot region. Its just that there are no wine grapes grown in any of them. California equals wine. North Dakota equals snow or buffalo.

People who were given “North Dakota wine” believed it was North Dakota wine. But since it was the same wine we poured for those who thought they were getting California wine, that shouldnt influence their taste. Should it?

It did. We knew from an earlier lab study that people who thought they were drinking North Dakota wine had such low expectations, they rated the wine as tasting bad and their food as less tasty. If a California wine label can give a glowing halo to an entire meal, a North Dakota wine label casts a shadow onto everything it touches.

But our focus that particular night was whether these labels would influence how much our diners ate.

After the meals were over, the first thing we discovered was that both groups of people drank about the same amount of wine-all of it. This was not so surprising. It was only one glass of wine and it was a cold night. Where they differed was in how much food they ate and how long they lingered at their table.

Compared to those unlucky diners given wine with North Dakota labels, people who thought they had been given a free glass of California wine ate 11 percent more of their food-19 of the 24 even cleaned their plates. They also lingered an average of 10 minutes longer at their table (64 minutes). They stayed pretty much until the waitstaff starting dropping hints that the next seating would be starting soon.

The night was not quite as magical for those given wine with the North Dakota label. Not only did they leave more food on their plates, this probably wasnt much of a meal to remember, because it went by so fast. North Dakota wine drinkers sat down, drank, ate, paid, and were out in 55 minutes-less than an hour. For them, this was clearly not a special meal, it was just food.

Exact same meals, exact same wine. Different labels, different reactions.

Now, to a cold-eyed skeptic, there should have been no difference between the two groups. They should have eaten the same amount and enjoyed it the same.

They didnt. They mindlessly ate. That is, once they were given a free glass of “California” wine, they said to themselves: “This is going to be good.” Once they concluded it was going to be good, their experience lined up to confirm their expectations. They no longer had to stop and think about whether the food and wine were really as good as they thought. They had already decided.

Of course, the same thing happened to the diners who were given the “North Dakota” wine. Once they saw the label, they set themselves up for disappointment. There was no halo; there was a shadow. And not only was the wine bad, the entire meal fell short.

After our studies are over, we “debrief” people-often by e-mail-and tell them what the study was about and what results we expect. For instance, with our different wine studies, we might say, “We think the average person drinking what they believe is North Dakota wine will like their meal less than those given the ‘California wine.” We then ask the kicker: “Do you think you were influenced by the states name you saw on the label?” Almost all will give the exact same answer: “No, I wasnt.”

In the thousands of debriefings weve done for hundreds of studies, nearly every person who was “tricked” by the words on a label, the size of a package, the lighting in a room, or the size of a plate said, “I wasnt influenced by that.” They might acknowledge that others could be “fooled,” but they dont think they were. That is what gives mindless eating so much power over us-were not aware its happening.

Even when we do pay close attention we are suggestible-and even when it comes to cold, hard numbers. If you ask people if there are more or less than 50 calories in an apple, most will say more. When you ask them how many, the average person will say, “66.” If you had instead asked if there were more or less than 150 calories in an apple, most would say less. When you ask them how many, the average person would say, “114.” People unknowingly anchor or focus on the number they first hear and let that bias them.

A while back, I teamed up with two professor friends of mine-Steve Hoch and Bob Kent-to see if anchoring influences how much food we buy in grocery stores. We believed that grocery shoppers who saw numerical signs such as “Limit 12 Per Person” would buy much more than those who saw signs such as “No Limit Per Person.” To nail down the psychology behind this, we repeated this study in different forms, using different numbers, different promotions (like “2 for $2” versus “1 for $1”), and in different supermarkets and convenience stores. By the time we finished, we knew that any sign with a number promotion leads us to buy 30 to 100 percent more than we normally would.

After the research was completed and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, another friend and I were in the checkout line at a grocery store, where I saw a sign advertising gum, “10 packs for $2.” I was eagerly counting out 10 packs onto the conveyer belt, when my friend commented, “Didnt you just publish a big research paper on that?”

Were all tricked by our environment. Even if we “know it” in our head, most of the time we have way too much on our mind to remember it and act on it. Thats why its easier to change our environment than our mind.

From the Hardcover edition.

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Matt Mapes, September 23, 2011 (view all comments by Matt Mapes)
Terrific book! Eating right and losing weight is not some fad. The author gives you realistic goals to shoot for, but you have to realize that there are no quick fixes. He delves into how our whole culture is out to make us fat and we have to be on the ball and aware of our surroundings and all the input our body and brain receives to understand our eating impulses. This work definitely makes you think and could change your life!
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(1 of 1 readers found this comment helpful)
Pamela Ager, November 7, 2008 (view all comments by Pamela Ager)
I read this almost a year ago, and it changed my eating habits. Not really a "diet" book, it's profoundly effective because it's our eating habits that put on weight and keep it on. For the first time in a long time I'm at an optimal weight for me, and although sometimes I don't eat that bowl of ice cream or 20 chicken wings when I want to, it's not that hard after changing some basic habits. It may be true that Americans are the only people on the planet who want to eat to lose weight, but even so, this book will help you if you seriously want to keep the lid on your weight gain. Or like me, you may find yourself eating differently just from reading this book!
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(5 of 7 readers found this comment helpful)
Edward, February 23, 2008 (view all comments by Edward)
All hail Charles Shaw!
Long live the 2 Buck Chuck!
Can wine from North Dakota and California really taste that differently?
Does that stick of sugarless gum that you chew everyday equal 1 pound per year?
Do you want to know what I am talking about?
Read this marvelous book!
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(5 of 9 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

Wansink, Brian
Brian Wansink, PhD
Wansink, Brian Phd
Sports and Fitness-Medicine Nutrition and Psychology
Healthy Living
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Trade paper
Publication Date:
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8.20x6.06x.66 in. .57 lbs.

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Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think Used Trade Paper
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Product details 304 pages Bantam Books - English 9780553384482 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "According to Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, the mind makes food-related decisions, more than 200 a day, and many of them without pause for actual thought. This peppy, somewhat pop-psych book argues that we don't have to change what we eat as much as how, and that by making more mindful food-related decisions we can start to eat and live better. The author's approach isn't so much a diet book as a how-to on better facilitating the interaction between the feed-me messages of our stomachs and the controls in our heads. In their particulars, the research summaries are entertaining, like an experiment that measured how people ate when their plates were literally 'bottomless,' but the cumulative message and even the approach feels familiar and not especially fresh. Wansink examines popular diets like the South Beach and Atkins regimes, and offers a number of his own strategies to help focus on what you eat: at a dinner party, 'try to be the last person to start eating.' Whether readers take time to weigh their decisions and their fruits and vegetables remains to be seen." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Wansink's dual approach emphasizing food knowledge and self-knowledge offers a sensible route to permanent weight loss."
"Review" by , "[Mindless Eating] does more than just chastise those of us guilty of stuffing our faces. It also examines the effectiveness of such popular diets as South Beach or Atkins, and offers useful tips to consciously eat nutritiously."
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