By Hara Estroff Marano, published on September 1, 2010 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Fast food is energy-dense—all that fat and all that sugar (there's sugar in McDonald's fish fillet patty and Taco Bell's guacamole, high-fructose corn syrup even in the hamburger buns). We're especially constituted to like that caloric combination—even though it leads to weight gain, clogged arteries and heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes—because for most of human history, calories were scarce and we became attuned to enjoying them wherever we found them.
Despite the richness of such foods, consumers don't reduce portion sizes, so they often take in twice as many calories in a sitting as the body needs. Enter obesity.
Fast foodies also consume more sweetened beverages and less milk, less fiber, and fewer fruits and vegetables than is recommended. Most ingredients that end up in fast food are the product of factory farms and are highly processed, grown with high levels of pesticides but providing fewer nutrients. More than a quarter of Americans depend on fast food, and over 30 percent of people consume some fast food on any given day. Americans spend over $134 billion on fast food per year.
The data trove doesn't even hint at a larger issue: the behavioral impact fast food has on us—whether we eat fast food or not. And the effects go far beyond nutrition and health. Here's the kicker—you don't have to consume fast food to be the target of some of its most insidious effects.
A team of Toronto researchers has found that even incidental and unconscious exposure to the fast-food symbols that are all around us makes people feel time-stressed and impatient in settings far outside the eating domain. They prefer time-saving products. Such exposure speeds up the rate at which they read, even when under no time pressure, as one marker of a sense of added time urgency.
Most striking of all, just a glimpse of the golden arches changes our psychology so that people become impatient about financial decisions—they wind up unwilling to postpone immediate gain for future rewards, so they sacrifice savings, against their own economic interest. Exposure to fast-food symbols also seeps into the way we approach leisure.
These reactions are automatic. And that's a measure of how well fast-food symbols, created by marketers within the last 50 years, have come to embed cultural ideologies about efficiency and saving time. "The implicit idea of fast food is to satiate yourself as quickly as possible," observes Sanford DeVoe, one of the researchers. "It represents a culture that emphasizes time efficiency and immediate gratification."
As faculty members of the Rotman School of Management, DeVoe and study coauthor Chen-Bo Zhong are connoisseurs of time. They're interested in the ways organizational practices and other environments influence how we think about time. They've found that people who are paid an hourly wage define happiness in terms of income and are willing to give up free time to earn money, making them reluctant to volunteer.
So exploring food was a bit off the menu—until the researchers reviewed the literature and realized how powerfully environmental cues can activate related goals and shift behavior. And just as time is a pervasive element, they realized, so are fast-food symbols. Think of all those TV ads. The billboards. It turns out that every time we see such marketing devices, they act as psychological primes, reminding us that time seems to be speeding up in contemporary society.
"There is a huge industry dedicated to confronting you with the association between food and speed," says DeVoe. "We're constantly assaulted with this prime in everyday life."
In one experiment, students were asked to read text on a computer screen. For half of them, the text was presented after six fast-food logos had been flashed on the screen too quickly to register consciously. Nevertheless, those exposed to the fast-food symbols read significantly faster than those not exposed. In a second test, another group of subjects, asked to recall their last meal at a fast-food emporium, preferred a variety of products designed for efficiency over a group of neutral products.
In yet a third experiment, 58 subjects were randomly assigned to rate the aesthetics of four logos—two from well-known fast-food franchises, two from run-of-the-mill diners. Then they made a series of choices about money. Repeatedly, those exposed to the fast-food logos were much more likely to accept smaller payments now rather than wait for larger payments in a week. "Fast food seemed to have made people impatient in a manner that could put their economic interest at risk," the researchers report in Psychological Science.
At first, DeVoe didn't believe that exposure to fast food had measurable effects in other domains even in the simplified world of the lab. So he surveyed 400 U.S. adults to see how often they are exposed to fast-food symbols in the much messier real world and whether it affects their savings rates. He was "stunned to see a robust correlation."
It may be that fast food is behind some long-term changes in financial thinking affecting stock markets and corporate balance sheets. "In the last five decades," says DeVoe, "there's been steady movement towards a preference for short-term gain. This has coincided with the emergence of fast food. We don't know which is causing which, but the link is undeniable and we have to start taking it seriously."
Fast food may be undermining happiness as well. "When you're thinking about what is next, when you are hurried, you don't take the time to savor experience," says DeVoe. "This could impede the ability to enjoy life." The researchers showed study subjects pictures of fast food and then gorgeous photos from National Geographic. "When we expose them to fast-food pictures, then provide enjoyable stimuli, we see dramatic changes: They don't get the bump in subjective well-being everyone else does from looking at beautiful pictures. They aren't able to smell the roses because time-saving goals have been unconsciously activated."
Maybe there's something more to the relationship between fast food and low-income neighborhoods than obesity. Maybe there's a two-way effect that is negatively reinforcing. Perhaps it's not just that fast-food outlets dominate in low-income neighborhoods because such food is relatively inexpensive. It may be that by acting surreptitiously on psyches to deter savings, they keep people confined to low-income neighborhoods.
Amount American spend on fast food: in billions
Number of McDonald's restaurants
Expected growth for 2010
Fast-food industry: +5 percent
Full-service restaurants: -7 percent
Weight excess of fast-food consumers vs. abstainers
1 meal/week: 1.4 pounds
2 meals/week: 2.8 pounds
3 meals/week: 4 pounds