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The Popcorn Experiment

Have you ever finished a bag of chips even though they were cold and soggy? Have you ever ate stale crisps just because the bag was there and you wanted to finish it?

Why do we overeat foods that don’t even taste good?

The reason is because there are signals around us that tell us to eat. It is not in our nature to pause after every bite and contemplate whether we are full.

As we eat we mindlessly look for signals that we have had enough. For instance, if there is nothing remaining on the table, that is a signal to stop eating, if everyone else has left the table, turned the lights off, and we are sitting alone in the dark, that is another signal.

For many of us as long as there are still a few milk soaked rice Krispies left at the bottom of the cereal bowl, it doesn’t matter if we are full, and it doesn’t matter if we don’t even like rice crisps, we eat it as if it is our last mission to finish them.

There was a study done in Chicago a few years ago by Brian Wansink.

People went to the cinema to watch a movie, on arrival they were given a free bucket of popcorn. Every single person that bought a ticket got one. The movie showing was 1pm so most of those people had just consumed lunch but they were given a soft drink and either a medium size bucket or a large size bucket of popcorn, like bigger than your head bucket.

They were told the soft drink and popcorn was free and that they would have to answer few concession stand-related questions at the end of the movie.

There was only one catch. This wasn’t free popcorn. Unknown to the moviegoers this popcorn had been popped 5 days earlier and stored in sterile conditions until it was stale enough to squeak when it was eaten.

The popcorn was safe to eat, but it was stale enough that one movie goer said it was like eating styrofoam packing peanuts. 2 others, forgetting they have been given it for free, asked for their money back.

During the movie people would a couple bites, put the bucket down, pick it up again a few minutes later and a couple more bites, put it back down, and continue. It might not have been good enough to eat all at once, but they couldn’t leave it alone.

Both containers, medium and large, had been selected to be bog enough that nobody could finish all the popcorn, and each person was given his or her own individual bucket so there would be no sharing.

As soon as the movie ended and the credits began to roll, they were given a half page survey that asked whether they agreed to statements like “ I ate too much popcorn,” by circling a number from 1 to 9, as they did this, the remaining popcorn from their bucket was weighed.

When the people who had been given the large buckets handed their leftovers, they were told, “some people tonight were given these medium size buckets, and others like yourself, were given these large size buckets.

We have found that the average person who was given the large buckets eats more than if they are given a medium size, do you think you ate more because you had the large size? Most disagreed. Many smugly said, “That wouldn’t happen to me,” “Things like that don’t trick me,” or “I am pretty good at knowing when I am full.”

That may be what they believed, but it is not what happened.

Weight the buckets showed that the bog bucket group ate an average of 173 more calories, that is the equivalent of 21 more dips into the bucket.

Clearly he quality of the food is not what led them to eat, once they started the quality didn’t matter. Even though some of them had just had lunch, people who were given the big buckets ate an average of 53% more than those given the medium size buckets.

Give them a lot, and they eat a lot. And this was 5 day old, stale popcorn.

Did people eat because they liked it? NO

Did people eat because they were hungry? NO

They ate it because of the surrounding and the signals around them, not only the size of the bucket, but also the distracting movie, the sound of people eating popcorn around them, and the eating scripts we take to the cinema with us.

All of these were cues that singled it was okay to keep on eating and eating.

Coach HB


From the book Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

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