3 Surprising Factors That Influence What (and how much) You Eat

by | Apr 4, 2012

Photo by ajleon

Andrianes Pinantoan is a psychology writer and editor for InformEd. You can follow him at his personal blog, Journey To Earth

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings who are in control of everything we do. Yet study after study shows otherwise.

To illustrate this Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Persuasion Technology Lab, said that for a particular behaviour to occur, three things must happen at the same time: you must have the motivation to do something, you must have the ability to do it and you must be triggered to do it.

You probably already knew about motivations and ability, but did you know that if you have competing motivations (e.g. staying healthy vs eating junk food), the one that gets triggered wins?

What are triggers?

Darya wrote about this in Summer Tomato’s most popular post, 10 Simple Ways To Eat Less Without Noticing. In the post, she explains Brian Wansink’s work about how the size of your plate, distractions, and other external factors influence how much you eat. These external factors are called triggers because you don’t think about them consciously or rationally.

Here are three more environmental triggers that influence what (and how much) you eat, that few people consciously think about.

3 Surprising Factors That Influence What (and how much) You Eat

by Andrianes Pinantoan

1. Your friends

Researcher Solomon Asch once conducted a study on social influence. He found that if the someone is alone when asked to find an answer to a simple question, only 1 person out of 35 gets it wrong. But when a group of people are asked the question at the same time and some of them are planted to intentionally give wrong answers, 75% of all participants choose to ignore their eyes and give at least one wrong answer. That is a huge number, and demonstrates how powerful social pressure can be to influence your decisions.

A later study found that as your friends start to gain weight, so will you. And this is not just a case of birds of the same feather flocking together, this possibility was controlled for in the experiment.

If you intend to live a healthy lifestyle but you’re around people who eat chips on a daily basis, you’re constantly being triggered. These friends are not necessarily pressuring you into eating chips, but that doesn’t stop you from grabbing a handful yourself.

Luckily there is some good news: self-awareness can reduce the power of these triggers tremendously. Recognise that you are being triggered and choose a different, equally rewarding action to perform instead.

2. The media

“Who falls for this stuff?” my friend jeered. It was not a question. He was watching an ad for Mars and the voiceover was talking about how delicious the chocolate bar was.

It’s a classic case of the third-person effect. The third-person effect states that a person who is exposed to persuasive communication sees it as having a greater effect on others than on him or herself. And that, in turn, causes us to let our guards down.

What we assume, of course, is that advertisements are there to tell us about the benefits of the product. So if we tune that out, it should fade away.

But advertisements actually do more than this. They often associate the product with something you feel positively about like a celebrity, babies, love, respect, etc. And by forging that association, they can transfer the feelings you have from one thing to another. It’s what psychologists call affective conditioning.

But it’s not just advertisements you need to worry about in the media. News headlines are also crafted to be sensational. Psychologists now know that news triggers the emotional part of our brain, which is of course, largely uncontrollable. This is why when a newscaster talks about the latest and greatest diet, you inevitably feel an impulse to try it out.

When you are confronted with news or ads that sound promising or exciting, force yourself to go through the process of “considering the opposite.” Thinking about how likely it is that the news is wrong can help mitigate the good feelings you had initially for the information and weaken your subconscious attraction to the idea.

3. Packaging

Advertisements don’t end with the media, unfortunately. Another common form of advertisement that people simply don’t think of as advertisements is product packaging.

So effective is packaging at influencing our behaviour that, depending on which study you see, impulse purchases are responsible for 20% to 60% of our grocery shopping. And we all know that few of those impulse buys are for packageless broccoli or spinach.

Packaging can also influence our behaviour via the “halo effect.” The halo effect is a cognitive bias that makes us extrapolate the value of a particular trait over other traits of the same product. For example, people tend to perceive “organic” as good, so by labeling deep-fried chips as “organic” marketers can create the perception that they are healthy even though they have just as many calories as conventional chips. As a result, people consume more overall calories when a food is labelled with a health claim than when there is no label at all.

Being vigilant of how these environmental triggers are affecting your behavior can help you dampen their effects and make better choices.

What’s causing you to eat more than you realize?

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11 Responses to “3 Surprising Factors That Influence What (and how much) You Eat”

  1. del rashid says:

    Hi Darya,

    I know that some of my comments have “rocked the boat” a little, but I am a person who likes to think outside the Nutritional Box, and being able to think outside the box has only encouraged me to challenge the Conventional Nutritional opinion.

    However back to the question “whats causing you to eat more than you realize”?…..I have found food ingredients encourage you to consume more food than you realize.

    Caffeine, High Fructose Sugar, Salt, Vinegar,Dairy Fats, Spices, Alcohol,all encourage us to subconsciously eat more than we should.

    like i have said Mother Nature did not evolve life so it could be eaten as a food source, but the natural principles of evolution has allowed life to flourish.

    Professor Lera Borodisky wrote an article for the American Scientific magazine and it was entitled “How does language shape our thoughts”, (just google it), anyway after reading this and watching her lecture on line, i asked myself how does Nature shape are thoughts ? especially how does Nature shapes our Cognitive Behavioral Psychology.

    The answer is simple, Plants do this by producing simple chemical compounds that either encourage us to eat or not to eat them.

    For example a Peach, once ripe has high concentration of not only fructose sugar but also serotonin, and soluble fiber, designed to encourage consumption by a suitable animal. However lets say the tobacco plant, this plant has high concentration of nicotine and water soluble glucoalkaloids that are designed to poison and deter predatory consumption of the plant leaf,(in humans nicotine not only as a neurological stimulant but also as an appetite suppressant).

    Ps animals influence our Cognitive Behavioral Psychology, by evolving very visible sharp teeth and pointed horns, or by camouflage.

    • del rashid says:

      Silly me, i forgot to mention,

      that cows, pigs, and chickens do not want to be farmed so that they can be slaughtered by the farmer for profit. I always wondered why a 1.5 tonne bull would want to be turned into beef burger. I myself think that the poor animal trusts the farmer.

      However the beef wouldn’t taste good if it wasn’t matured and seasoned.

  2. del rashid says:

    I do like Darya’s blog because it is thoughtful and informative, but some people believe that they are Shilden Cooper……………BAZINGA.

  3. jbug says:

    perhaps you should start your own blog if this one isn’t meeting your standards instead of coming here and bashing this one?

  4. JonO says:

    Great post and so true. You hardly ever think about any of this stuff but its always there…lurking. I’m amazed at how my kids are immediately drawn to stuff that’s bad for them or that we don’t need. When we go into a store together, even before they have a chance to read what’s on an item, they immediately say they want something. I try to teach them that anything right by the door at a store is generally going to be either unhealthy or something you don’t need. Same with the friends being triggers, only problem there is that I’m usually the bad friend with all the booze and chips and cookies and whatnot. 🙁

    • Andrianes says:

      You’re right Jono. Which is why I rarely bring my kids for grocery shopping! Kidding. But I do make sure they are stuffed before they step in.

  5. Fascinating post. Being social beings we are certainly influenced by the stuff around us. Interesting associations contributing to our eating issues. More great reasons to be “mindful” eaters as Darya always says.

  6. Andrianes says:

    And quick shout out to Darya. Thank you for posting my guest post! I look forward to contributing again in the future.

  7. Motherhood. Before you know it, you’ve eaten your meal, the scraps off your kid’s plate, and are sitting down with cookies as a treat now that he’s in bed.

  8. Thanks for this! Just last night at my meditation and mindfulness group we ended up talking about this very subject. A few people had some good ideas like
    *eat your first mouthful as if it is your last – you will eat it slowly and relish the taste. Continue with each mouthful in the same way.
    *chewing your food properly and being mindful of how you are eating gives your stomach a chance to ‘tell’ you brain that you have had enough.
    *Most of the time we funnel food into our mouths while thinking about any and everything except what we are doing. No wonder we don’t listen to our bodies and eat way too much!

    I will share your post with the group as added incentive!


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