Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mindlessness

I just started reading a book by Chip and Dan Heath titled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Here is an excerpt from the book:


"One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson’s action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior. There was something unusual about the popcorn they received. It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back. Some of them got their free popcorn in a medium-size bucket, and others got a large bucket—the sort of huge tub that looks like it might once have been an above-ground swimming pool. Every person got a bucket so there’d be no need to share.


The researchers responsible for the study were interested in a simple question: Would the people with bigger buckets eat more? Both buckets were so big that none of the moviegoers could finish their individual portions. So the actual research question was a bit more specific: Would somebody with a larger inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply? The sneaky researchers weighed the buckets before and after the movie, so they were able to measure precisely how much popcorn each person ate. The results were stunning: People with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium size. That’s the equivalent of 173 more calories and approximately 21 extra hand-dips into the bucket. Brian Wansink, the author of the study, runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, and he described the results in his book Mindless Eating: “We’ve run other popcorn studies, and the results were always the same, however we tweaked the details. It didn’t matter if our moviegoers were in Pennsylvania, Illinois, or Iowa, and it didn’t matter what kind of movie was showing; all of our popcorn studies led to the same conclusion. People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”



Now you might expect that this post will be about eating or over-eating, especially during the holidays. But, the first thing that came to mind after I read this passage was that the people in this study ate simply because they had something to eat, and the more they had to eat, the more they ate. They didn't eat because they were hungry or because of they enjoyed the taste of the popcorn. But, what's more interesting than the fact that people with the most inexhaustible supply ate more than others with a less inexhaustible supply was that people ate the popcorn at all. After all, it was purposefully made to taste awful, yet people still ate. You would think that people would have thrown the popcorn in the garbage or just set it aside. But, no, they ate it. My theory is they ate the popcorn, even though it tasted awful, because they were at the movie theater and had popcorn. It is the norm, the custom, almost a reflex, to eat popcorn at the theater. These people were just going through the motions, behaving mindlessly, as the author of the study put it.


Among other things, the study accentuated that when we are put in familiar situations and environments, we are prone to go through the motions and to forget to be intentional about our behavior; we act mindlessly. This isn't such a bad thing at the movie theater. Sometimes, we go to the movies so we can be mindless; we get a mental respite. But, if the subjects of the study would have taken a moment to stop, think, and evaluate what they were doing, instead of being swept up with familiarity, they would have realized that eating the stale, "wretched" popcorn wasn't a good idea.


I wonder if we aren't swept up by familiarity and fall victim to mindlessness is other aspects of our lives. Because much of our lives are familiar, predictable, and scheduled, if we're not careful, we'll find ourselves just going through the motions: we'll have just another Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas morning with our family. In our daily lives, we'll just spend another day with our spouse and children; we'll have just another day at the office, as the cliche' goes. I'll bet no one in that theater wanted to eat that popcorn, and none of us want to go through the motions with our families or at work - it just happens. We have to remind ourselves to be intentional with our behavior, to improve everyday, and to make a positive impact on others. If we don't, we won't just get stuck eating a bad bucket of popcorn, we will miss out on having the type influence we're capable of having.