Do you always get popcorn at the movies? Or snack while you’re on the couch watching television? A new paper by USC researchers reveals why bad eating habits persist even when the food we’re eating doesn’t taste good. The study also reveals the surprisingly simple ways we can counter our habits to gain control over what we eat.
In an ingenious experiment, researchers gave people about to enter a movie theater a bucket of either just-popped, fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn.
Moviegoers who didn’t usually eat popcorn at the movies ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn. The week-old popcorn just didn’t taste as good.
But moviegoers who indicated that they typically had popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. In other words, for those in the habit of having popcorn at the movies, it made no difference whether the popcorn tasted good or not.
“When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and make us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present,” said lead author David Neal, who was a psychology professor at USC when the research was conducted and now heads a social and consumer research firm.
The study, in the current issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, has important implications for understanding overeating and the conditions that may cause people to eat even when they are not hungry or do not like the food.
“People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn,” said corresponding author Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC. “But once we’ve formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good. We’ll eat exactly the same amount, whether it’s fresh or stale.”
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