Why We’re So Damned Fat
Cass Sunstein and Richard Thale review Brian Wansink’s new book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, for The New Republic.
While acknowledging changes in the economy that allow people to afford a wide variety of tasty food while exerting less physical labor, issues of self-control, and the usual culprits, Wansink argues that the major problem is human psychology.
“In the thousands of debriefings we’ve 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 latte said, I wasn’t influenced by that.'” Wansink calculates that people make more than two hundred food-related decisions every day; most of those decisions are made quickly and intuitively, without any kind of deliberate assessment. As he puts it, “stomachs can’t count,” and “it’s simply not in our nature to pause after every bite and contemplate whether we’re full.”
We take cues from package sizes, apparently. Given a free bucket of popcorn, people will tend to eat it even if it is so stale that it tastes like Styrofoam peanuts. Those given a larger bucket will eat 53 percent more on average. Given a large bowl of tomato soap and told to eat as much as they want, not realizing that the bowl is being automatically refilled, some will continue to eat until the experiment is called off. The larger the container of M&Ms and ice cream, the more people will eat.
The reason is simple: packages “suggest a consumption norm–what it is appropriate or normal to use or eat.” In fact, most people do not stop eating when they are no longer hungry. They look to whether their glasses or plates are empty.
Labeling matters, too. Given identical nutrition bars, one prominently featuring the word “soy” and other emphasizing “protein,” people will hate the former and love the latter.
Wansink’s lesson is that “we taste what we expect we’ll taste.” To support this claim, he notes that in the dark, people are willing to believe that chocolate yogurt is strawberry yogurt–and apparently to enjoy it just as if it were strawberry. A military chef found himself with a group of sailors who were tired of eating lemon Jell-O and insisted on getting their favorite flavor, which was cherry. Not having any such Jell-O, he colored lemon-flavored Jell-O red–and the sailors ate it happily. Indeed, even many wine connoisseurs cannot tell the difference between red and white wine when the wine is served in dark, opaque stemware.
This is interesting stuff, which undermines the notion that people always make informed choices. Sometimes, we operate on auto-pilot.
It strikes me as inconceivable that I would bite into red-colored lemon Jell-O and think it was cherry. Certainly, I can’t imagine mistaking a Riesling for a pinot noir or vice versa, regardless of the glass. Clearly, though, people must do that. On the other hand, I know that I’ll mindlessly sip a beverage or keep popping M&Ms, peanuts, popcorn, and the like if it’s in front of me.
This discussion puts me in mind, too, of an old column by Cathy Seipp, who passed away yesterday. It begins with the classic line, “I believe your right to overeat ends where my airplane seat begins.”