What if, instead of constantly trying to fight against some of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses, we could use them to our advantage?
The title of this post is taken from the last line of Mindless Eating, by food researcher Brian Wansink. In the book, he writes that we make over 200 food decisions each day, and that we aren’t aware of most of them. The result is that what we eat and how much we eat are determined by an astounding array of “hidden persuaders.” Here are a few of them:
size of the plate or container
shape of the glass
distance to the food/convenience of accessing it
variety of food
number of people you’re eating with
distractions present (tv, radio, phone, reading, etc.)
labels/descriptions of the food
presentation of the food
The most famous example might be the popcorn study. Wansink gave people a free bucket of popcorn at a movie theater. Some had a medium bucket and some had a large bucket, though each was big enough that no one could finish all of it. Importantly, all of the popcorn was stale, having sat in sterile conditions for five days. Despite patrons saying, “It was like eating Styrofoam peanuts,” people with large buckets ate 53% more - an average of 21 more handfuls (or 173 extra calories).
Study after study show the impact of hidden persuaders. If you eat with one person you’ll eat 35% more, and up to 96% more when you eat with a group of seven. If you’re given a half-pound bag of M&Ms you’ll eat an average of 71, but you’ll eat 137 (or 264 more calories) from a one-pound bag. Even experienced bartenders mistakenly pour 37% more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, skinny ones.
How to avoid a lifetime of suffering
If you’re like me, you may believe you’re not fooled by such things, that you’re in control of your own choices. Alas, two decades of Wansink’s research shows that everyone thinks this way.
“We all think we’re too smart to be tricked by packages, lighting, or plates. We might acknowledge that others could be tricked, but not us. That is what makes mindless eating so dangerous. We are almost never aware that it is happening to us.”
Instead of fighting with yourself to become more disciplined, Wansink suggests you adopt simple “reengineering strategies” that make it easier for you to choose what you believe is in your own best interests. Want to eat more vegetables? Serve them family style or on larger plates. Want to drink a bit less wine? Serve it in taller, thinner glasses and keep the empties on the table.
“As all of our research suggests, we can eat about 20 percent more or 20 percent less without really being aware of it. You can eat too much without knowing, and you can also eat less without knowing it. The goal is to make small changes in our environment so it works with us rather than against us.”
Reading Mindless Eating has already inspired me to change my environment when it comes to food. But the core idea applies to all sorts of things - from how much we use our phones to what kinds of media we consume.
Yes, our innate human tendency for doing things in a mindless, habitual way can lead to unhealthy choices - choices that may well be driven by external influences and the interests of others. But a short period of making mindful adjustments to your environment can help you create a kind of “positive mindlessness,” one that leads to choices that serve you well.
The next time you overindulge on popcorn or social media, don’t waste time berating yourself. Think instead of how the things around you may have led to that behavior. Choose to control your environment rather than have it control you.