Habitual eating could be a problem many people face without even knowing it. Once a certain pattern is ingrained in the mind, it is often unrecognized and therefore difficult to get out. Someone who grabs a bag of chips a few times before going to watch TV may automatically want to eat chips whenever that TV turns on. This idea was tested with movie goers and popcorn eaters.
In the experiment, scientists gave popcorn to people about to enter a movie theater. The participants were given either a bag full of freshly popped, yummy popcorn, or stale, week-old popcorn. The people who were typical popcorn eaters ended up eating about the same amount of popcorn whether it was stale or not, why those who didn’t regularly eat popcorn at the movies ate far less stale popcorn.
However, that wasn’t quite enough for the scientists. As a change of scenery, a control group was placed in a meeting room where they watched movie clips while the scientists would perform the same popcorn experiment. The change of scenery seems to have broken the eating trigger because the regular popcorn eaters ate far less stale popcorn this time around.
The meeting room, unlike the theater, is a place not associated with eating popcorn. The scientist believe that since this is the case, people paid more attention to what they were eating instead of absentmindedly eating from pure habit.
“People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn,” said study researcher Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at USC. “But once we’ve formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good. We’ll eat exactly the same amount, whether it’s fresh or stale.”
In an attempt to break the pattern, the study conductors ran one last separate experiment. This time, participants were asked to use either their dominant or non-dominant hand to eat their popcorn while in a movie theater. The results showed that using the non-dominant hand caused participants to eat much less of the stale than the fresh popcorn. This simple change caused a pattern interrupt, and broke the eating habit.
The study was published in the current issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.