September 23, 2011

Rituals, overeating, and...stale popcorn?

Baseball game = hot dog.

Carnival = cotton candy.

Birthday = cake.

And, of course, movie theater = popcorn.

Our culture dictates these rituals, and we are happy to comply. But does this sense of ritual subconsciously force us to continue eating, even if a particular serving isn't quite so yummy?

In a recent study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers analyzed two groups of frequent movie-goers: those who regularly eat popcorn and those who don't. The subjects were given either fresh popcorn, or week-old popcorn.

Those who don't usually eat popcorn ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn. Habitual eaters, however, consumed the same amount of stale as fresh popcorn.

The authors suggest that environmental cues may account for this result. When offered both kinds of popcorn in a meeting room setting, frequent popcorn eaters became pickier, choosing fresh over stale.

In an interesting extension to the study, researchers had movie-goers eat both fresh and stale popcorn with their non-dominant hands; suddenly, habitual popcorn eaters consumed significantly less stale popcorn.

As a non-habitual movie muncher myself, I am not surprised by the results of this study. Cake and I, however, are a different story: if it came to a Duff Goldman wedding cake or a Rubeus Hagrid rock cake, I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I'd happily scarf down both.

David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, Mengju Wu, and David Kurlander. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, November 2011; vol. 37, 11: pp. 1428-1437.

Photo courtesy Consumer Search. Originally reported by Scientific American Mind Podcast.

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