Beating Mindless Eating
The Influence of Incidental Affect on Consumers' Food Intake
Through a preliminary study and two lab studies we found that when people are in a sad state they eat larger amounts of hedonic foods (buttered popcorn and M&Ms) than when they are in a happy state and that this effect is moderated when nutritional information is present. Conversely, people tend to eat more of a less hedonic food (raisins) when they are in a happy state than when they are in a sad state. Implications for food marketers, policy makers, health professionals and consumers are identified and discussed by the authors.
The preliminary test looked at how sad vs. happy states affect consumption. These affective states were induced by full length movies. Thirty participants completed the study, and before each movie began, participants were given buckets of popcorn. Upon completion of the film, the participants indicated their assessment of the movie, on a sad vs. happy scale. As predicted, participants consumed 28% more popcorn while watching the sad movie than while watching the happy movie.
One hundred ten individuals participated in the first lab study in which the variables being manipulated were the affective state and nutritional information. The affective state variable included sad, neutral, and happy moods while nutritional information was either present or absent. The results were consistent with the preliminary test. Consumption was highest in the sad state and the presence of nutritional information attenuated consumption in the sad and neutral states but not in the happy state.
The second lab study examined how consumption along the three states, sad, happy, and neutral is influenced by the nature of the product: hedonic (M&M's) vs. less hedonic (raisins. ) One hundred thirty–nine students enrolled in the study, and the procedure was similar to that in the first lab study except that nutritional information was not used in this case. We found that people consumed larger amounts of the hedonic food in a sad state while people in the happy state consumed more of the less hedonic food. These results replicated those in the preliminary test and first lab study.
The findings in these studies have important implications for food companies, policy makers, health professionals and consumers in general. For food companies, it may be in their best interest to help consumers better control what they want to eat in a single setting. For policy makers, it may be useful to make nutritional information very salient and noticeable because doing this will help individuals in negative moods to control how much they eat. For health professionals, it may be useful to teach consumers the true role their emotions play in their eating behavior. And for consumers understanding the role of affect in everyday consumption and how it can be controlled will make them more likely to take deliberate steps to be more conscious of how much they eat.
For more information see Garg, Nitika, Brian Wansink and J. Jeffrey Inman (2007), "The Influence of Incidental Affect on Consumers' Food Intake," Journal of Marketing, 71:1 (January 2007), 194 – 206. Reprinted with permission from Journal of Marketing, published by the American Marketing Association http://www.marketingpower.com/content1053.php
Brian Wansink, PhD
Food and Brand Lab, Director
110 Warren Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
*The study was conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.