The Easiest Way to Control How Much We Eat

This post is part of an ongoing series of mini-posts entitled Daily Learning, wherein I attempt to convey some interesting factoid that I learned that day and my very brief thoughts on it.

What I Learned

Container size matters. A lot.

Researchers at Cornell University ran a study on 158 moviegoers examining their popcorn-eating habits. The goal was to study the effect of the popcorn containers’ size on the amount of popcorn consumed. Each participant received a giant tub of popcorn—more than any normal person could consume in the span of a 2-hour movie. But for half of them, the effectively-infinite supply of popcorn was twice the size. To rule out the effect of taste, for half of the study they used 14-day-old, stale popcorn; people ate the popcorn because it was there, not because it was delicious.

After the movie, participants were asked “Do you think the size of the popcorn bucket had any effect on how much you ate?” to which there was an almost universal response of “No, of course not.”

The numbers told a different story.

The moviegoers who had been given a double-sized infinite-supply of fresh popcorn ended up eating 45.3% more than their half-sized counterparts. With the stale popcorn this effected was diminished to a still amazing 33.6%.

Where I Learned It

The Invisibilia podcast episode “Frame of Reference.”

What I Thought

This principle can be used for the manipulation of both others and of our own selves. I’ll leave the former to your imagination, but an example of the latter that comes up often (in my life at least) is the consumption of ice cream.

The age-old dilemma: The hour is late. Bed time approacheth. But first—a bit of that sweet, creamy good stuff for a proper send-off to dreamland. But how to eat it? Should I just take the whole container out of the freezer and go to town with a spoon? Or maybe I should do that whole “civilized” thing and scoop some into a cup first?

The results of this study would definitely point towards the couth option as being also the smarter one. Especially if you typically buy the larger tubs rather than the small pints. Even if you know that you don’t plan on eating a whole tub (infinite supply in either case), you will still end up eating more than if you had restricted yourself at the beginning through spooning a set amount into a separate cup.

Conversely, it’s best to eat veggies in large bowls.

What it Relates To

1. Anchoring.

The psychological principle that describes how our brains latch onto the first quantity of something that we see and use it as a set point. One of the most common instances of this is in shopping—if a store initially labels an item as $149, then subsequently marks it down to $69.99, your brain will tell you that you’re getting a great deal. Even if they never actually sold it at the non-reduced price. This works even when what they are doing is completely obvious; the number of times I’ve heard a friend brag about getting three “$800” suits from Men’s Warehouse for “Only $750 in total!” boggles my mind. Or, more accurately, the fact that they seem to believe that each of said suits is actually comparable in quality to a suit that would be SOLD for $800 by another brand is what is doing the boggling.

2. Degrees of infinity.

For those of you nerdy folk out there who care about cool mathematical nuances, this article brought to mind the concept of how not all infinities are created equal. For example, the number of decimal numbers in between 0 and 1 is infinitely times more numerous than the total number of possible integers. These are referred to as degrees of infinity, represented by Aleph-0 and Aleph-1. If you can’t figure out how this makes any sense, see here for a nice explanation.

Why We Erroneously Judge Others and How to Stop

It’s funny how our own judgmental attitudes can catch us unawares.

I was recently hosting a meal in my apartment for a large group of both friends and strangers (a common mix when everyone you invite asks to bring a guest). I had spent all day cooking various types of fish and meat and devising several interesting cocktails to serve. At meal time, when I had just finished bringing out all of the food and drink (including a pitcher of water for those folk not tempted by the stronger beverages), one of the new guests—let’s call him Joe—came over to me in the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” Joe said. “Do you have any soda?”

My initial reaction? Disgust. Judgement.

Why would someone ask for soda? Doesn’t he know how unhealthy that stuff is? And he just supposed that I would have some?

Stop. Pause. Think.

Why am I experiencing these feelings?

Possible options:

  1. In recent years I have been extremely focused on health and nutrition. I view soda as one mankind’s all-time worst inventions and one of the leading causes of health problems in this country.
    1. His desire for it still has no impact on me. Why should it affect my emotional state?
    2. I view the world through my own lens. If I have trained myself to be disgusted by it then I am disgusted by anyone else wanting it.
  2. I was affected by his presumption about me. Why would he think I had soda? Me, who has self -defined as someone who doesn’t drink it? Shouldn’t this person who I just met realize that??
  3. I had worked really hard to prepare a fancy meal, drinks included. Was everything that I made so inadequate that he needed to request something so low-class?

Examining all of these explanations, I realize that the truth is really a combination of all of them.

Here’s why I am a hypocrite.

  1. I did have soda in my fridge. Why? Because I needed it for one of my cocktails. Which means there was in fact some soda out on the table.
  2. Not only was I serving soda, I was serving alcohol. Which, even though I drink it (the complete reasons for which will be left for another post), I acknowledge is not healthy.

How could I have had such a negative, judgmental reaction to his desire for soda when my own beverage choices for the night were arguably worse?

The Problem

It is impossible to be perfectly rational.

Much as some of us would like to make that claim (myself being the first offender), there just isn’t time to stop and think about every situation we encounter in a proper analytical manner. Instead we rely on complex mental models that we build up that are capable or recognizing a given situation, comparing it to the existing model, and instantly spitting out a best-fit answer.

Examples of common types of model-solution situations are “I am a Republican, therefore I will not vote for that Democrat, even though I haven’t closely examined his entire platform and personality in such a manner as to be able to make a well-informed decision.” Or, “I am a strong, independent person—I will instantly reject offers for help even in situations where that help is needed.”

Digging us still deeper into this trench of self-misdirection is our tendency to project our own mental models on others. Rather than make a conscious effort to see a situation from their point of view, we consistently default to thinking “I would never do such a thing, so how could they?”

This is the trap that I fell into.

I have a mental model of myself as a healthy person. Even though that model comes with certain caveats (e.g. drinking alcohol, occasional eating baked goods, etc.), it also comes with certain hard and fast rules. These include avoiding hydrogenated fats like the plague and never drinking plain soda. When I saw Joe breaking one of the rules that I had set for myself, I became angry.

But what if this Joe was also a very healthy person? Maybe during the week he eats even healthier than I do, but one of his personal exceptions is that he allows himself a single glass of soda on Friday nights.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But why should it matter to me?

The Solution

I don’t believe that it is possible to fully eliminate this type of unconscious judgement from our psyches. We can, however, learn to reign it in and mitigate its effect on our thoughts and behavior.

For a while now I have been working to instill in myself the following habit:

Cue: Any time I experience a negative emotion targeted at someone else.

Routine: Stop. Pause. Think. Why am I experiencing this emotion? Which of my own mental models could I be projecting? Could there be any situation at all that I can think of where if I knew his perspective then I would no longer be upset? If so, assume as the default that that situation is the current one.

Reward: Eliminating negative emotions leads to reduced stress and increased happiness.


TL;DR — Someone asked me for soda. I got mad. Realized I was being a hypocrite. Resolved to eliminate that type of thinking. Gave him soda. Went and drank a cocktail.