Just how much do our surroundings affect the way we eat? That’s the question one food psychologist is on a lifelong mission to answer. For the past 18 years, Brian Wansink has directed the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, a program that analyses how packaging, advertising, and personality traits influence consumer decision-making.
“All of our studies are focused on how people can make very small changes in their life and eat better, less, and healthier without having to go on a diet or resort to willpower,” he explains.
Wansink has taken an active role in helping companies serve their consumer base in more nutritious ways without affecting bottom-line profits. In 1995, he was behind the research that helped food manufacturers develop 100-calorie packs. From 2007-2009, he was appointed executive director for the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the agency that developed dietary guidelines and promoted the food pyramid.
According to a Mother Jones profile, Wansink’s stock skyrocketed with his New York Times bestseller Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, a book that laid the groundwork for his theories. When one man who wanted to cut back his Slurpee intake, Wansink encouraged him to drink in the parking lot. “He had to sit there and drink that stupid thing and get brain freeze,” he told Mother Jones. Sure enough, the environmental ploy worked.
We asked Wansink to walk us through some of the most intriguing research he’s come across and pull back the curtain on the sneaky tricks that brands employ to gain loyalty and make us crave their products. Trust us when we say that you will never look at a cereal mascot the same way ever again.
Eyes in the Cereal Aisle
The study: An initial study measured the angle of cereal characters’ gazes in a survey of 65 cereals and 86 different spokes-characters. In a second study, participants were asked to rate brand trust and connection after being randomly shown one of two versions of a Trix cereal box that featured the Trix rabbit either making eye contact or looking down.
The results: Characters on children’s cereals made more eye contact with children, and had a downward gaze at an average of nearly 10 degrees. Cereals marketed to adults made eye contact with adult shoppers with gazes directed straight ahead that had an slight upward angle. Brand trust was up 16 percent and brand connection up 28 percent when a cereal character made eye contact.
Takeaways: Cereal characters that maintain eye contact communicate trustworthiness and increase consumers’ chances of wanting a product, so parents steering clear of sugary cereals for their children should probably just avoid taking their kids down the cereal aisle altogether. Wansink originally conducted this study on behalf of a health-focused cereal company that was looking to improve sales. He says, “That research really started as, ‘Here’s what can be done to better market your cereal.’ But it’s just that the way it really got portrayed by the media was: ‘Look—cereal companies are out to screw everybody!’” (Photo: Flickr/Mike Mozart)
The Snacktime versus Mealtime Bias
The study: College students were asked to attend an event that served food. They were prompted to either eat quesadillas and pizza while seated at a set table, or while standing up with disposable dinnerware. Afterwards, researchers measured the participants’ total food intake, as well as their perceptions of what they ate.
The results: Participants who thought they were sitting down to a meal ate nearly 28 percent more calories than those who thought they were just having a snack. This was even more pronounced among participants who were hungry. “We found that any one of those [dinner cues, such as sitting down or eating with real dinnerware] pushes you in the direction of thinking it’s a meal; but if you combine any two of those, you’re calling it dinner,” Wansink says.
Takeaways: Tell yourself you’re just having a snack, and you’ll consume less than if you think you’re having a meal—as long as you don’t compensate by overeating later. (Photo: Flickr/Geoff Peters)
All Wine Pours Are Not Created Equal
The study: “A lot of us in the lab really, really, really like wine, but we realize there’s a fine line between liking wine and liking it a little too much and too often,” Dr. Wansink joked as he explained the motivation behind the study. “Sometimes we think, ‘Wow, why did I have so much to drink last night? What happened here? I don’t know.’ So we started looking at the things that cause people to pour more than they typically do.” Participants were asked to pour themselves a normal serving of wine, with researchers manipulating various environmental cues to see if they had any effect. The subjects were given either large, wide, or standard-sized wine glasses. Some participants were seated at a place setting. Some were asked to pour their wine into a glass they were holding, while others were asked to pour wine into a glass placed on the table. They drank either red or white wine.
The results: Wider glasses caused people to pour nearly 12 percent more wine. Students poured more than 12 percent more wine when they were holding their glasses, compared to pouring into glasses on a table. When they drank white wine in a clear glass, they poured more than 9 percent more wine than when they were serving themselves red wine.
Takeaways: To avoid excessive drinking, choose a narrower glass, place your glass on the table before pouring, and select a wine that contrasts with your glass color. (Photo: Flickr/kismihok)
Wide Glasses Make You Drink More
The study: A group of students and a group of professional bartenders were asked to pour wine into two types of glasses with the same volume capacity, one tall and thin, and the other short and wide. Researchers measured the volume of what was in the glasses.
The results: The students poured nearly 30 percent more alcohol in the short, wide glass than in its tall, slender counterpart. Bartenders didn’t fare much better; they still poured an average of over 20 percent more in short, wide glasses compared to tall, thin glasses.
Takeaways: You should drink from tall, skinny glasses because they look like they contain more than short, wide ones. Because short, wide glasses give the illusion of containing less, we tend to over-pour in them, even if we have years of professional serving experience. “People always see long and skinny as holding more volume than short and fat,” Wansink explains. “This has implications for pouring. When you pour, you determine when to stop by the level of the beverage in the glass. You’re going to stop pouring sooner in a skinny glass because you’re going to see the level [of liquid] go up really fast. But in a short, wide glass, it’ll take a while for the level to go up — and you don’t judge volume by looking side to side. You do it up and down.” (Photo: Flickr/Didriks)
Color Contrast Affects How Much We Eat
The study: Participants were randomly handed either red or white plates and directed to buffets serving pasta with either tomato or Alfredo sauce. Their portion sizes were weighed using hidden scales.
The results: “It’s not the color of the plate that matters; it’s the color contrast between the plate and the food that’s being served,” Wansink explains. When food and plates had little contrast (like pasta with white Alfredo sauce on a white plate), participants served themselves 22 percent more pasta than when food and plates had great contrast (such as pasta with red marinara sauce on a white plate).
Takeaways: Want to eat less? Serve your food on plates that contrast your food in color. “We’re most in danger of overserving carbohydrates; the best thing you can do is make sure you have a plate that’s not white,” Dr. Wansink says. And if you want to eat more of something like greens, try serving them on a green plate. (Photo: Flickr/Benny Mazur)