Experiments in Eating

The New York Times features a fascinating profile of Cornell University professor Brian Wansink, whose work suggests that environmental cues play a big role in how much we eat.

Wansink’s work (the subject of his new book Mindless Eating) suggests that certain cues, such as the size of the container in which food is served or the way it is packaged, can play a critical role in shaping eating habits and affecting weight gain.

Among his many intriguing experiments, which include testing how much soup people will eat out of “bottomless” soup bowls and seeing whether schoolchildren can be duped into eating peas (when they’re called “power peas”), is this one involving movie popcorn:

An appalling example of our mindless approach to eating involved an experiment with tubs of five-day-old popcorn. Moviegoers in a Chicago suburb were given free stale popcorn, some in medium-size buckets, some in large buckets. What was left in the buckets was weighed at the end of the movie. The people with larger buckets ate 53 percent more than people with smaller buckets. And people didn’t eat the popcorn because they liked it, he said. They were driven by hidden persuaders: the distraction of the movie, the sound of other people eating popcorn and the Pavlovian popcorn trigger that is activated when we step into a movie theater.

Finally, an explanation for why I found myself nearly cracking my teeth on unpopped kernels while watching The Illusionist last week: blame it on Jessica Biel. Damn distraction.