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The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition: Are You Under Its Subconscious Influence?

Most Americans subscribe to the unhealthy equals tasty intuition.

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Could the McLean Burger Have Failed Because of It's Name?

In 1991, McDonald's introduced a burger called McLean. McLean was lower in fat than the regular burger. Further, blind taste tests revealed that McLean was better tasting than the regular burger. Food scientists achieved this remarkable feat—of making McLean burger healthier and tastier—by infusing the burger with artificial fat flavors. Yet, McLean failed miserably in the marketplace: It was pulled off the McDonald's menu within a year of its launch.

Why did McLean fail?

One interesting possibility lies in the name that McDonald's chose for the burger. The name, "McLean," connotes not just lower fat and caloric content, but it also connotes less tastiness, especially for those who believe that healthy food cannot also be tasty. Is it possible that those who tried McLean found it to taste bad just because they expected it to taste bad—even though blind taste tests had found it to taste better?

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The McLean story inspired my colleagues, Rebecca Naylor and Wayne Hoyer, and me to explore the impact of the unhealthy = tasty intuition on people's judgments and choices of food. The unhealthy = tasty intuition refers to the idea that the healthiness of food is inversely related to its tastiness. Most (over 60 percent) Americans subscribe to this belief, as our studies show.

One of our experiments focused on whether those who subscribe to the unhealthy = tasty intuition would find the same food item to be less tasty when it is portrayed as more healthy. We took advantage of a housewarming party to conduct the study.

Guests at the housewarming party were served three East Indian dishes (Idli, Mango Lassi, and Samosa). Since most attendees were unfamiliar with these food items—none had ever had the Idli or the Lassi before—we supplied them with an information sheet that provided some basic details about the three items. The purported reason for supplying the information sheet was to educate the party-attendees about the nutritional value of these dishes, but the real reason was to manipulate the perceived level of healthiness of the Lassi, a smoothie made with a base of milk or yogurt.

For roughly half the participants at the party, the Lassi was portrayed as unhealthy ("made out of real mango pulp and milk; generally considered very unhealthy"), while for the rest, it was portrayed as healthy ("made out of real mango pulp and milk; generally considered very healthy"). The information sheet portrayed the other two items—idlis and samosas—as healthy and unhealthy, respectively, across all participants. So, only the Lassi was portrayed as healthy for one set of participants and unhealthy for the other set. After tasting each of these items, participants were asked to rate tastiness, as well as how much participants had enjoyed the items.

Mango Lassi--An East Indian Delicacy

Two days after the party, we sent an email to all attendees to thank them for their attendance and, under the pretext of exploring their views about the relationship between healthiness and tastiness of food, asked them to respond to the following question: "On a scale of one to nine, how much would you agree with the following statement: Food that is unhealthy generally tastes better?"

The study revealed two interesting results. First, those who thought the Lassi to be less healthy found it to be tastier, and enjoyed the drink more. Some of you may be surprised that a belief can be powerful enough to influence actual experience. However, to others, this may not be surprising since findings across a variety of contexts have shown that our beliefs can have a powerful effect on the reality we see. In the context of medicine, we refer to such effects as placebo: If we believe that a pill will cure our illness, we stand a better chance of being cured by it. But the placebo effects occur in other domains as well, including consumption domains. For example, one set of studies by Ariely, Shiv, and Carmon showed that, when consumers pay full price for an energy drink, they experience more of its purported benefits than those who pay a discounted price—even when it is the exact same drink.

Sonja Lyubomirski and her students appear interested in assessing whether the attraction hypothesis (from The Secret) could be a placebo effect as well. According to the attraction hypothesis, one's thoughts can have a powerful effect on one's objective reality. Specifically, the mere act of articulating a desire enhances the chances of achieving the desire. So, for example, if you desire a well-paying job, the act of articulating this desire to yourself, and feeling optimistic about the chances of landing one such, increases the chances of attracting the outcome. I am not sure whether the attraction hypothesis will be confirmed in Sonja's studies, but I appreciate her open-mindedness in assessing its validity: Most scientists I know would assume that the hypothesis can't be true.

Back to the Lassi study, we found a second—and to me, more interesting—effect. Even those who stated that they strongly disagreed with the statement that "Food that is unhealthy generally tastes better," reported finding the Lassi to be tastier when it was portrayed as unhealthy. This suggests  that the unhealthy = tasty intuition operates at a subconscious level; people are not even aware that their taste-perceptions were influenced by the intuition, which explains the discrepancy between their reported beliefs about the relationship between healthiness and tastiness, and their ratings and enjoyment of the Lassi.

The idea that one could be unaware of the influence of one's beliefs on one's decisions may appear unnerving, but most of our decision-making occurs subconsciously, as research by Bargh, Dijksterhuis, and others over the past two decades has shown. Indeed, some of Dijksterhuis' work suggests that we may be better off letting our subconscious make our decisions for us—especially when the decisions have important consequences!

This is an intriguing idea, and one to which I will be dedicating a future post. Until then, make sure that you are not steered towards making unhealthy food choices just because you think unhealthy = tasty!

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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