Last Meals on Death Row — What Do They Reveal About You?

Are our true desires exposed when our choices have no future implications?

Posted Sep 08, 2015

What would you choose to enjoy as your very last meal?

Most of us don’t know when our final serving will be, but there are some who know precisely when their last meal is with near certainty — those on death row.

It is routine for newspaper reports of U.S. executions to include a description of the final repast requested, indicating a widespread macabre interest in last meals.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Brian Wansink, Kevin Kniffin and Mitsuru Shimizu from the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, catalogued the actual last meals — the final food requests of 247 individuals executed in the United States from 2002-2006 — the theory being that this might reveal something about our true food desires.

Perhaps a unique way of getting at the answer to this question — what our true consumption desires are — is to examine what people choose to eat for their last meal. For the first time ever, their picks hold no implications for their future.

What would you choose to eat if all concerns over your body image, cholesterol and mortality were removed completely?

The analysis, published in the academic journal Appetite, found the average last meal is calorically rich (2756 calories) and proportionally averages 2.5 times the daily recommended servings of protein and fat. The most frequent requests are also calorie dense: meat, fried food, desserts and soft drinks dominate. Relatively low levels of fruits and vegetables were requested, while yogurt, tofu and explicitly mentioned vegetarian meals, never appeared as a last meal choice.

This new study had been partly inspired by research into the most famous final dinner in history — Jesus Christ’s Last Supper — which is the most painted repast in history. Fifty-two of the best known depictions of the Last Supper over the last millennium were analyzed by Brian Wansink and Craig Wansink from Cornell University and Virginia Wesleyan College in the United States. They found that the relative sizes of the main dish, bread, and plates have relentlessly increased over the past millennium. 

The study entitled "The Largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium" points out that according to the New Testament, the dinner took place on a Passover evening in "a large room upstairs, already furnished," but the accounts of the event make no mention of provisions, other than bread and wine. So pictorial depictions of the last supper probably tell us more about the psychology of the painter and the audience they were painting for, than the last meal itself.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

The study published in the International Journal of Obesity could almost be seen as evidence that food has become our new faith, because over the last 1,000 years, relative to the size of the heads of Jesus and the disciples, the main course has increased by 69.2 percent, the size of bread by 23.1 percent and the size of plates by 65.6 percent. Size in a painting is often an indicator of import. Religious figures appear to have been getting smaller, while their dinners have been getting larger.

The ‘Death Row’ study found ice cream and pie were the most popular desserts followed by cake. Chocolate was scattered across food types including in milk, malt, pudding and ice cream as well as in cake, brownies, fudge and cookies. Chocolate has a reputation as a coping food for stressful situations.

It’s a well known finding in psychology that those who have been recently reminded of their own impending mortality eat more, and this effect is most pronounced for those with low-self-esteem. Uninhibited consumption of not just food but material goods, luxury products, alcohol and even TV viewing appears to be a distraction, when in a mortal predicament. After the events of September 11th it is reported that North Americans went on a shopping splurge and ate more sweets.

Self-esteem can be threatened by confronting mortality, particularly if the individual fears dying without leaving a significant mark. Distraction is one way of counteracting mortality threat, accomplished by over-eating and over-consuming.

Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters from Arizona State University and the Rotterdam School of Management, wondered what happens if excessive consumption of food isn’t allowed to perform its function of comfort and distraction from painful self-awareness? Perhaps the motivation to consume will decline?

In their study entitled "The Sweet Escape: Effects of Mortality Salience on Consumption Quantities for High- and Low Self-Esteem Consumers," researchers used mirrors. This created a situation where food doesn’t allow an escape from painful self-awareness, even while reminded of mortality. Self-awareness increases when individuals are reminded of themselves, for example, when facing a mirror. Subjects were seated in front of a mirror while writing an essay about death.

In the study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants were exposed to a mirror while writing an essay about either death or pain. Some were allowed to escape facing themselves in a mirror, another group was not. When they weren’t allowed to escape from facing a mirror, low self-esteem consumers who wrote about death, purchased fewer food items than low self-esteem consumers who wrote about pain.

The authors' conclusion appears particularly apposite in a moment in history when why poorer children are fatter, is being hotly debated. Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters argue that those with lower self-esteem, might be more susceptible to overconsumption when stressed or when confronted with images of death during the news or crime shows.

Their results suggest that putting a mirror on the fridge door could help curb overeating. If the mirror also remains visible during dinner, this could be an effective weight loss gambit.

Wansink, Kniffin and Shimizu contend their ‘Death Row’ findings suggest caution when raising awareness of mortality in health campaigns against obesity. ‘‘Scaring’’ the population in order to encourage positive eating and activity patterns might be counterproductive. 

Warning labels on tobacco products sometimes appear to increase tobacco consumption.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

The authors of the study acknowledge that some of the patterns they found (e.g. absence of vegetarian meals) reflect the backgrounds of those on death row. But they also point out that those whose sense of the future is shorter —  like combat soldiers — demonstrate similar food preferences (calorically rich; disproportionate balance in favor of carbohydrates and fats.) These match with patterns, also found outside of prisons, in insecure environments. The authors contend those living in tougher socioeconomic conditions also appear to ‘‘live for the present’’ when the future appears uncertain or bleak. People feeling insecure therefore tend to be significantly more obese.

Another intriguing finding was a high percentage of individuals on death row — 39.9 percent — requested branded foods or drinks. One person’s last words; ‘"I did not get my Spaghetti-O’s, I got spaghetti! I want the press to know this." Preference for brands could be driven by a desire for familiarity and comfort when we are stressed.

Books have been devoted to this, such as Dickerson, J. L. "Last suppers. If the world ended tomorrow, what would be your last meal?," Dunea, M. "My last supper. 50 great chefs and their final meals" and Caldwell, A. "Their last suppers. Legends of history and their final meals." The authors of the study point out that this fascination with ‘"last meals" offers an insight into our true desires, when the future is no longer an issue. But in contrast to popular anecdotes and individual case studies, they created a unique catalogue of actual last meals.

The authors report in their survey that there were four meals that were estimated to be 7200 calories or more. For example, one person requested 12 pieces of fried chicken, two rolls with butter, two sodas, one pint of strawberry ice cream, one pint of vanilla ice cream and mashed potatoes with brown gravy.

The state of Texas reportedly dropped the special last meal ritual for death row inmates towards the end of 2011 after convicted murderer Lawrence Russell Brewer, just before his execution, ordered (but then failed to eat) two chicken fried steaks with sliced onions, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, a cheese omelet with other ingredients, a large bowl of fried okra with ketchup, three fajitas, a pint of Blue Bell ice cream with a half-loaf of white bread, a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts, a pizza and three root beers.

Some might contend it’s a measure of the level of personality disorder or dysfunctional personality in this population that they manage to mess with, and therefore mess up, thus losing even the one small concession they had been given in their grim predicament.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Some have commented that the tradition of death row special requests for a final meal seems unjust. Why reserve such a special privilege for convicts, when those who are homeless or poor are not given individually tailored meals by the state? Others respond that often the meal is restricted to costing no more than $40, no alcohol is allowed, and it’s the mark of a civilized human society — granting one last wish to those condemned to die.

But perhaps the true purpose of final requests is psychological, and primarily for the benefit of the executioners, to help them feel better about what is going to happen.

Some psychologists, who are anti-capital punishment, might contend that the last meal offers a veneer of civilization and humanity to the otherwise barbaric practice of execution.

According to this argument, the psychology of the last meal ritual in fact reveals more about the conflicts within the executioner, rather than the executed.

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A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post