Brian Wansink, a behavioral scientist at Cornell University, has developed a highly exciting research program around food psychology. His research team has tackled questions such as whether individuals underestimate their caloric intake (a possible factor in obesity), whether the shape of a glass affects how much alcohol is poured into it, and whether the size of a bowl affects the amount of food (e.g., popcorn) that is consumed. These are all fascinating questions from both a theoretical as well as practical perspective. Brian's approach stems from the cognitive psychology tradition specifically he construes food decisions as one form of information processing.

I recently stumbled on one of Brian's recent publications, coauthored with Collin R. Payne, published in Obesity wherein they explored behaviors in an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet as a function of a patron's body mass index (BMI). I was particularly interested in reading about this study on two separate fronts: (1) I have argued that the Chinese buffet is an instantiation of the Darwinian mechanism of food hoarding/gorging that is found across numerous species (including humans), thus explaining its popularity. (2) My own BMI has suffered from my succumbing to this Darwinian trap on countless occasions!

Patrons were studied in a naturalistic environment. Observers coded three sets of behavioral categories: (1) Serving behaviors, which included browsing versus serving one's self immediately, and whether a large or small plate was used; (2) Seating behaviors, which included whether one sat at a booth or a table, and whether one faced the food or had their side or back to it; and (3) Eating behaviors, which included the use of chopsticks versus forks, whether a napkin was placed on one's lap or not, the average number of chews per bite of food, and the average percentage of leftovers that were uneaten on a served plate. Perhaps not surprisingly, low versus high BMI patrons displayed radically different behaviors. Here are the key results:

Patrons with higher BMIs were more likely to use larger plates and to face the buffet. They were less likely to use chopsticks, to browse the buffet prior to eating, and to have a napkin on their lap. In other words, any behavior that can augment the rate of food gorging was more likely to be engaged in by high BMI customers! On the other hand, lower BMI patrons left a greater percentage of food on their plates, as well as chewed their food more than their high BMI counterparts.

Whereas genetic differences in proclivities to gain weight are difficult to curb, this study provides us with hope that small behavioral differences in the manner by which individuals interact with food can result in long-lasting behavioral strategies that are likely to succeed in managing our food intake.

I am getting hungry! Ciao for now.

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About the Author

Gad Saad

Gad Saad, Ph.D., is a professor of marketing at Concordia University and the author of The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct.

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