Mindless Eating


A recurring theme in our neuromarketing posts is that our subconscious mind evaluates situations, makes decisions, and in general does its own thing without our conscious awareness. Our rational, thinking, analytical brain – the thing that separates us from other species – is blissfully unaware of most of this activity. A new book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink, reinforces this point. Wansink is a marketing professor at Cornell University, and spends his time in Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab exploring why people eat what they do and why they do it.

MSNBC.com describes an AP reporter’s visit to the Food and Brand Lab in How mind-stomach link affects what you eat:

Wansink isn’t concerned about the food, exactly, but why you eat it. His goal is to uncover hidden cues that influence how much we eat. He wants to know if people grab more M&M’s from a bowl if there are more colors (yes), if people tend to eat less popcorn at comic films like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” than during gloomy films (yes) and whether people are tuned into the subtle prompts like mood and setting that affect their eating (generally, no).

Wansink estimates that people make 200 eating decisions a day, and that most of these decisions are unconscious. While the book is largely geared to understanding why diets don’t work and to provide a structure for controlling some of one’s unconscious eating habits, marketers will no doubt enjoy understanding some of the factors that influence the consumption of their product.

Marketers might also enjoy perusing the Food and Brand lab website to find articles like, Glass Shapes that Make Us Drink Too Much. (Spoiler: short, wide glasses cause people to pour and drink higher volumes of beverages than tall, skinny ones.) The article explains the pouring differential:

This bias is caused by a visual illusion known as the vertical-horizontal illusion. The tendency we have to focus on heights instead of widths. That?s why, for instance, people say, ?Boy, is the St. Louis Arch high,? but they never say, ?Boy, is it wide,? even though the dimensions are identical. When pouring into glasses, we tend to focus on the height of the beverage and basically ignore the width,? said Brian Wansink Ph.D., an author on the study (along with Koert van Ittersum, Ph.D.). ?That?s why we overpour into wide glasses but think we poured very little.?

Although that study focuses on pouring liquids, that same phenomenon might well apply to product packaging. Following the same logic, a taller product container might appear to contain more than a shorter, wider one of the same actual volume, and hence be more attractive to consumers. Even if one’s primarly marketing field isn’t food-related, articles like that one are great illustrations of the power of seemingly unimportant variables to influence human decisions and of the need to test rather than just assume.

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