One-third of U.S. adults are obese, and another third are overweight, according to data recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Marketing scholars Naomi Mandel, Andrea Morales of the W. P. Carey School and Steve Nowlisof Washington University in St. Louis (formerly W. P. Carey) have been investigating what influences our decisions about diet. Knowledge@W. P. Carey spoke with Professor Morales recently about two of her studies. One investigated those tempting 100-calorie snack packs, and the other looked at whether your dining companions have any effect on your food selections. The results may surprise you. (13:25)
Knowledge@W. P. Carey: One-third of U.S. adults are obese, and another third are overweight, according to data recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. W. P. Carey marketing scholars Naomi Mandel, Andrea Morales and Steve Knowles have been investigating the influences on our decisions about diet.
Knowledge@W. P. Carey recently spoke with Professor Morales about two of her studies. One study looked at those tempting 100-calorie snack packs, and the other considered whether the people eating around you have any effect on your food selections. The results may surprise you.
You did a study that used the mini-snack packs that have been marketed, the 100-calorie snack packs, as a starting point to look at some pretty interesting topics. Could you review for us quickly what the scope of that research study was?
Andrea Morales: Yes. The whole idea behind it was to see: are these mini packs, or these 100-calorie packs, actually doing what they were designed to do in reducing consumption? Because the whole idea behind them is to get people to eat less, right? If you want a snack, then go to the mini pack and you'll eat less. What we found is that the people precisely who they were designed to help, they actually hurt. In that, we found differences in how restrained eaters or dieters respond to these 100-calorie packs versus non-dieters.
Knowledge: Okay, describe for me then the two populations.
Morales: So restrained eaters, dieters, people that just are always thinking about food, what they're thinking about ... I probably fall into this category; not so much the dieter, but just thinking about food all the time and having really an emotional connection with food. It makes them happy to think about. They enjoy it, they love it, but yet it's also this vice that sort of ...
Knowledge: Something you need to manage.
Morales: Yes, that they need to manage. They can't just eat whatever they want because they want to eat everything. That's sort of that food is a big part of their life, and that's what a lot of the questions on the scale are I think about what I'm going to eat, I'd like to lose five pounds, those kinds of things. There are other people that that's not the case. They eat -- like my mother-in-law -- simply eats because she needs food to keep going. She doesn't think about dinner and what it's going to be like and taste like. It's just okay I'm ...
Knowledge: She's not a foodie.
Morales: No she's not a foodie. Those are sort of the extreme cases, but that's the general distinction.
Knowledge: So then you did the study to see what was going on with these 100-calorie snack packs.
Morales: Right. Do they reduce consumption or is it possible that just by being labeled sort of this diet food, could it give people permission to eat more or what happens. What we find is that people, when they look at those 100-calorie packs, for the restrained eaters it's sort of an interesting interaction. They both think it's diet food because they are smaller, more so in smaller packages, but most of these things that come in the 100-calorie packs aren't really diet food. So we used M&M's and chocolate chip cookies as our stimuli, smaller chocolate chip cookies and smaller M&M's, but they're still clearly not low-calorie foods.
Morales: They see these packages that appear to be diet foods, but filled with these scrumptious hedonic, very enjoyable snacks. So it causes stress because it's a diet package but yet really-bad-for-you, yummy food; so what do we do? That for the restrained eaters, it's a definite conflict that causes stress that then leads them to eat even more of them.
Knowledge: Why? Now why is that?
Morales: Because they've got these conflicting pieces of information. Right?
Knowledge: Uh huh.
Morales: It's a small package that says, "Okay smaller packages mean diet food." Right? Chocolate M&M's means not diet food, high calories. So you've got this diet food and high calories in the same package, and restrained eaters don't quite know what to do with that. They are not able to exhibit the self control that they want to. We only have so many resources available to us, and these dieters are used to sort of restraining/refraining from the foods that are bad for them. If they lose some of their cognitive resources, they are depleted because they are stressed out trying to reconcile this difference between diet food and really yummy M&M's, high in calories that they can't orchestrate that self control anymore. It's just too much.
Knowledge: So they eat two instead of one.
Morales: Right. They are not able to say, "You know what, I need to limit this because this is not good for me." Instead they just end up eating more.
Knowledge: Now your paper suggests some coping mechanisms for that, doesn't it?
Morales: Yes. One of the ways we are able to mitigate this effect and get them to actually eat less of the 100-calorie pack is to activate what is called the cold system. These restrained eaters have this emotional connection with food, so it naturally triggers a hot system, all of these different emotions. If instead, you can externally get them to think about food in a non-emotional way, so we ask them to visualize the M&M's as marbles or buttons on a shirt. It sort of shuts down that intense emotional reaction.
Knowledge: This is a highly desirable food. It's one of the things I'm not allowed to eat.
Morales: Right, and you get them thinking about buttons instead. Their sort of craving drops. They're not as emotional, not as worked up, and they're able to say, "Wait, this is an M&M, not a diet food. Right? I need to limit ..."
Knowledge: What am I doing?
Morales: "... what I'm eating."
Knowledge: In another study, you were looking at the social part of eating and controlling what you eat. Can you describe that?
Morales: Yes, so the 100-calorie packs looked at how people are responding to the way food is packaged. Then in this other study, what we wanted to see is how does the person in front of you in line at Chipotle change your own consumption, what you order? If the person in front of you is really skinny and orders a giant burrito with sour cream and extra cheese, does that change what you order, and does that vary depending on whether that person is very skinny versus very heavy?
Morales: So what we found is that it's not just one factor that changes your own ordering and consumption. It's the interaction between their body type, whether they're heavy or skinny, and then also the portion size that they order. So do they order a lot or a little?
Knowledge: How did you test this, because we have to hear this story?
Morales: Yes, so since there are lots of factors that influence the degree to which others influence you, we wanted to hold things constant. We used a fat suit so that the person would have the same physical features, same level of physical attractiveness on other dimensions, but that we would just vary her body type and make her really heavy or really skinny.
Knowledge: Did she wear the same clothing?
Morales: She did.
Knowledge: Different sizes.
Morales: We had the same clothing made, custom tailored in very large sizes versus very small sizes because she was naturally a double zero and then the prosthesis made her a size 16. What we had to do is find a really skinny confederate with a very round face so that it would be more believable. Thankfully, my co-authors are in Vancouver, which a lot of the Hollywood films are also shot there, and so we had an Academy Award winning costume studio make the fat suit for us.
Knowledge: How interesting. So now what did you discover?
Morales: In this case, what we found is that there is a general anchoring bias in that we are affected by what other people take. So, if the person in front of you takes a lot, you take more on average than if they take very little.
Knowledge: I see.
Morales: But, the degree to which you sort of copy what that person is doing changes depending on their body type.
Morales: So when the heavy person takes quite a bit, then you pare back more than if the skinny person takes a lot.
Knowledge: So what if the heavy person doesn't take very much food? What if they're on a diet?
Morales: Yes, so if the heavy person takes very little, well then that gives you the licensing to take even more. You take less than what you did if they take a lot; but since they take little, you say, "Well, they have to watch what they eat, but I can take a little more."
Knowledge: I see. Well both of these studies have implications for marketers, don't they? Now the 100-calorie snack pack one is very interesting because stress is involved. How could that be useful to marketers?
Morales: It's interesting. It's sort of a long-term versus short-term issue in that these 100-calorie packs are very, very attractive to the restrained eaters because they are naturally looking for ways to cut back on their consumption. But, if over the course of time, it results in higher consumption, then ultimately they're going to stop buying them. Right? They're going to realize these things are not helping us. We're not losing the weight, and they sometimes cost even more because they come in the individually packaged things. Initially, it gets this big boost because they want to cut back, but if they notice it's not working, then it could be a bad strategy.
Knowledge: Okay. What about the fat-suit study? Are there implications there?
Morales: Yes, I mean I think there are lots of implications in terms of knowing how to control your own behavior. It's a little harder to find how the marketer can control ... they can't control who is in their store and who is going to be in front of you. It's more having that knowledge as a consumer that you are affected by the people around you. You know if you're trying to lose weight, then you've really got to be conscious of what people are doing around you and then how you're being affected by it. Because what we have found, is that these things can be corrected as long as you know they are taking place.
Knowledge: So I can see this being very valuable to the diet industry, to all of those programs that try to change behavior.
Morales: Right. I mean that's kind of what we're looking at is how do we fight this obesity epidemic. We know people are over consuming and eating more than in the past. How can we reverse that effect? That's really what we're looking at. One of the take-aways is you don't want to eat with the really skinny person that eats tons, because you eat more then. Perhaps you need to eat alone in your office instead of going out. Or at least just be aware that ...
Knowledge: Be conscious of it.
Morales: Yes, you can be affected by the people around you.
Knowledge: Right. What about, what will you be -- what are you investigating now? Are you continuing to look at food?
Morales: Yes, there are several of us in the ASU Marketing Department that are interested in consumption and how our consumption affects our body images. How our body image affects consumption. I'm looking at the issue with vanity sizing, and so it's a little bit out of consumption, but also very much connected to body image. When you try on pants that are two sizes smaller than what you normally wear.
Morales: Do you buy a lot more from that store? Or, if you have to buy two sizes too large what happens? What we find is the negative is what you would expect. People feeling very bad about their body image, and they not only buy ... are less likely to buy the pants, but then they buy other non-clothing items in the store. They go to a handbag or shoes. Right? Because you can always buy shoes even when you ...
Knowledge: Yes. Yes, definitely.
Morales: ... don't feel good about yourself. Then we find the reverse when you do get that boost. You're more likely to buy that item because it's enhancing your body image.
Knowledge: How interesting. Well, thank you very much for spending some time with us.
Morales: All right. Thank you.