You possibly remember youtube videos from a couple of years ago claiming that fast food chain McDonald's had placed subliminal advertisement into the Food Network's popular TV show "the Iron Chef" (The Food Network later issued a statement explaining the brief flash of the McDonalds logo during the TV airing as a technical glitch).
Turns out that one unexpected side effect from this brief exposure to the golden arches logo could have actually been to make viewers (not more hungry, but) more impatient.
Here's what a recent article in the journal Psychological Science has to say about this:
In a first experiment a group of undergraduate students at the University of Toronto was asked to focus their attention on the middle of a computer screen that had been programmed to show short flashes of colored images at the speed of a mere 80ms; fast enough for the human eye to detect, but too fast as that the content of the image could penetrate into the viewers consciousness.
For one half of the participants, the flashed images consisted of the logos of well known American fast food chains (McDonald's,KFC,Subway,TacoBell,BurgerKing,andWendy's), while the other half saw meaningless flashes of rectangular shapes with similar size and color.
After this subliminal priming, participants were asked to read a 29 word instruction and a 320 word description of Toronto, before moving on to the next computer screen via pressing a key on their computer.
When the experimenters compared the time it took participants to read the instructions and the 329 word paragraph, they found that those participants who had been exposed to the fast-food logos took an impressive 14 seconds less - on average - to complete the task (70 seconds vs 84 seconds).
This decrease in the time that that participants who had been subliminally primed with the fast-food logos allowed themselves for reading the instructions was significant even after the researchers controlled for each participant's baseline reading speed (which had been recorded earlier in the experiment).
Because the time one allows oneself to perform a specific task (reading in the above experiment) is only one dimension of impatience the experimenters then conducted a second experiment, in which they set out to measure people's preferences over time-saving products. In this experiment, a new set of undergraduates was asked to remember either a time they had a fast food meal, or a time they went grocery shopping. Then the participants were asked to state their preferences over a number of consumer products:
It turns out that the participants who were asked to remember a fast-food experience showed a stronger desire for time-saving products such as "2-1 shampoo" or a "four slice toaster" when compared with the group of participants who had been asked to think about the grocery store experience; these participants were more likely to select products such as "regular shampoo" or a "single slice toaster".
It seems that
"[...] thinking about fast food makes individuals impatient and strengthens their desire to complete tasks as quickly as possible"
In order to please not only psychologists, but also behavioral economists, the experimenters conducted a third experiment in which they investigated whether the impatience increasing effect of fast food priming would extend also to
"the most studied temporal decision - the decision to save".
In this experiment 58 undergraduate students (I knew theywere good for something, besides producing tons of work for me to grade!) were assigned to rate four different logos. Two of the logos were those of inexpensive diners, and the other two were the McDonalds logo and the KFC logo.
After rating the aesthetics of these logos, the students were asked a series of choices of the form
"Would you prefer $3 today or X dollars in 1 week" , where the value of the delayed reward ranged from 3.05 $ to 7$.
In comparing the minimum amount that each participant was willing to forgo in a weeks time in order to receive an instant 3$ gratifcation, the researchers again found that fast food priming decreased patience.
This time, participants who had rated the fast food logo expressed preferences that were equivalent to a 17% interest rate in order to wait for their reward. In comparison, those participants who rated the diner logos revealed preferences equivalent to an 11% interest rate.
As the authors conclude:
"Fast food has become the ultimate icon for a modern culture that emphasizes time efficiency and instant gratification"
Based on the priming literature and their experimental findings, the authors argue that
"the time-saving principle embodied by fast food can automatically induce haste and impatience"
"These findings suggest some ironic implications. Although time-saving goals can certainly increase time efficiency, the activation and pursuit of these goals upon exposure to fast- food concepts are automatic and not contingent on the context. Thus, exposure to fast food may increase reading speed whether one is at work, where time efficiency matters, or relaxing at home."
The clear message of these results is that
"exposure to fast food and related symbols reinforces an emphasis on impatience and instant gratification and that fast food can have a far broader impact on individuals' behaviors and choices than previously thought."
As a final thought, I just hope that this post doesn't seem too hastily written, but if it does...well...you know.
Chen-Bo Zhong, & Sanford E. DeVoe (2010). You Are How You Eat: Fast Food and Impatience Psycholgoical Science, 21 : 10.1177/0956797610366090