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At lunch with: Brian Wansink
16 FEBRUARY 2006

Woman at desk reaches for brightly-colored foil wrapped candies. Want to maximize junk-food consumption? Put the food close at hand, and make it easy to see. That's the take-home message of new research by Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and of applied economics at Cornell University, who looked at the candy-eating behavior of women secretaries.

The Why Files caught up with Wansink in a tony establishment just off the Cornell campus. Presiding over his customary corner table, dressed in subtle corduroy and tasteful ascot, he looked every inch the human behaviorist he claims to be.

Reminds us of B. F. Skinner with a fork, we thought, as he masterfully ordered a giant plateful of crab cakes and a tureen of New England clam chowder. Delicately spearing a crab on his personal fork, he chewed his way through his subject: The psychology of eating. In research that could be equally helpful to dieters and junk-foodistas, Wansink and two colleagues at the University of Illinois provided 40 women with a dish of Hershey's Kisses each day, and each night recorded how much they ate.

The candies was held in dishes that were almost identical -- except that half were opaque, and the other half allowed a view of the precious contents. Half the dishes were placed right in harm's way -- on the desk -- the other half Hershey's Kiss in starburst designplaced 2 meters away, within reach only of athletes like Rosemary Woods.

We casually hula-hooped a fried onion ring on the salad fork and observed that we could predict the results: People would eat more of the candy they could see, especially if it was easy to reach.

That happened. The participants krunched an average of 7.7 Kisses each day when the chocolates were in clear containers on their desks; and just 4.6 when in opaque containers on the desk. They gobbled 5.6 Kisses that were stored in clear jars two meters away; and only 3.1 brown blobs in the "remote" opaque jars. So by putting the goodies on the desk, and making them easier to see, you could boost consumption by 248 percent.

A candy on the desk: Worth 2 in the bush?
The Why Files swirled an artisan-roasted coffee milkshake, tested its bouquet and took a loud slurp. We wondered aloud: Hadn't researchers already pinpointed the roles of proximity and visibility? We knew people would eat more food that was close and visible, Wansink assured us as he tucked into a seven-green side salad, drizzled with antique balsamic vinegar.

But they still didn't understand the causes, Wansink continued. Was it because the food was easy to reach, or because it was visible? "These are potentially competing, potentially contributing theories. It could be both. I'll have a slice of New York cheesecake."

a Hershey's Kiss with starburst behind itAnd indeed, it did turn out to be both. Proximity and visibility both increased candy consumption. Perhaps more interesting, the women underestimated how many close-in candies they ate, but overestimated their feeding of next-desk candy. One possible explanation: Their memories were scarred by the enormous effort needed to snare a chocolate from the next desk.

A better understanding of the psychological and social cues that increase food consumption could help dieters and people who tend to eat without being aware of it, Wansink told us as he worked his way through the cheesecake.

Stash the cookies in the cupboard, where you have to lift a finger to eat them, and they won't be so much on your mind, he suggests. You will tend to eat less, and think you ate more than you did.

Wansink ordered a triple espresso: "Stirred, not shaken," fastidiously folding his napkin, and allowed as the research could also help persuade more people to eat healthy food. As we paid the tab, we began naming these creations: "Carrot Cisses"? "Soya Snackeroos"?

As we drained the milkshake and popped an after-dinner mint, we asked Wansink if the food industry wasn't light years ahead of academics in understanding consumer behavior. He tore into a package of after-dinner cookies and disagreed, in an entirely undisagreeable manner. "You cannot believe how much they pay really smart people, who don't have a whole lot of an idea of what is going on." About 10 years ago, he says, he described to an industry group a study of how package size affected food consumption. "I thought, this must be so obvious, but they said, 'Really? No way, you must be kidding!'" As he stuffed the leftovers in a doggy bag, he observed that food manufacturers are less likely to look at consumer behavior than to fall back on trusty tools for improving sales: price promotions, tweaking flavors, and more advertising.

Which may be a good thing. What they don't know can't hurt us.

-- David ("Table Man") Tenenbaumtiny red and white candy

* We admit it. We invented that fancy lunch. We don't get an expense account, but it can't hurt to dream, eh?

Bibliography
The Office Candy Dish: Proximity's Influence on Estimated and Actual Consumption, B Wansink et al, International Journal of Obesity advance online publication 17 January 2006; doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803217

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