The Hidden Brain

Our unconscious biases.

Ordering More Food Than You Need: Network Effects

How Waiters Can Influence How Much Food You Order

Restaurant patrons are subtly influenced by the size of their servers to order different kinds of food and different quantities of food, according to new research into the hidden brain’s effects on our food habits.

So which of these statements do you think is true? (More than one answer is correct.)
A) Dieters consume more calories when served by a thin waitress.
B) Dieters consume more calories when served by an overweight waitress.
C) Non-dieters consume more calories when served by a thin waitress.
D) Non-dieters consume more calories when served by an overweight waitress.

The correct answers, perhaps surprisingly, are B & C.

You might think that dieters would be more influenced by someone who was thin, but it turns out that dieters tend to be influenced by someone who is overweight. Similarly, non-dieters tend to be influenced by people who are thin, rather than those who are overweight.

I based this puzzle on a set of interesting experiments by Brent McFerran, Darren W. Dahl, Gavan J. Fitzsimons and Andrea C. Morales. In a recent paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, they wrote, “Since chronic dieters feel a constant desire to lose weight, it is possible that they identify more with those who are overweight or obese (rather than thin), resulting in assimilation towards behaviors associated with obesity (eating more) and selecting food choices that they explicitly recommend. However, non-dieters should assimilate to a greater degree towards a thin (vs. obese) server, resulting in the opposite effects.”

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Shankar Vedantam is a science reporter with National Public Radio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University.

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