By now everyone knows about the studies showing that how much you eat is significantly affected by how food is presented to you. You eat 28 percent more from a 12-oz. plate than from a 10-oz. plate. You consider a serving of cereal to be about 2/3 of a bowl, regardless of how big the bowl is.
The guy who’s responsible for a lot of this research, Brian Wansink, gives good interview:
“Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.” […]
“What I find most surprising is that across the hundreds of studies we’ve done across thousands of people, almost nobody is willing to believe that they are influenced by their environment,” Wansink said. “We all want to believe we are too smart to be influenced by the lighting in a room, or what the person across the table is doing. That’s why these cues are so dangerous to our diet.”
This is both remarkable and unsurprising. More than 90 percent of the population believes they’re an ‘above-average’ driver. Everyone else is affected by marketing ploys, social cues and environmental triggers. Me, I eat exclusively when I’m hungry and stop the moment I reach satiety.
One of the most powerful drivers of human behaviour is that we like to be told what to do. One of Francis Fukuyama’s core insights in The Origins of Political Order is that there is basically no such thing as a pre-rules society. From the first hunter-gatherer tribes, humans developed norms and structures to guide individual behaviour.
Humans have a strong desire to do the right thing, but it’s not as strong as the desire to do what you’re ‘supposed’ to. Religion, parenting and politics are just near and far ways of giving you guidance for how to behave in a given situation. You say ‘excuse me’ when you bump into someone on the bus because you’ve been told that’s the appropriate thing to do. You shake hands with people when you meet them because someone somewhere told you that’s what one does.
The anxiety we feel in unfamiliar situations doesn’t come from the situations themselves but from the ambiguity about which rules apply. This is why we talk about each other all the time: Someone else didn’t follow a rule. No other species, to my knowledge, writes or reads advice columns.
When you eat, the size of a bowl is the world’s way of telling you how much cereal you’re ‘supposed’ to have. The cakes next to the cash register are telling you that it’s appropriate to have dessert with your meal. All of these cues are permission slips to consume more. And about 30 years ago, we started following rules from companies that want to sell us food rather than signals from our own bodies.
It’s great that Wansink is working with elementary schools to make sure the environment is encouraging better choices. I shudder to think, however, of all the other areas of our lives where it isn’t.