Environment influences us a lot more than we like to give it credit for. You might think that you are preternaturally aware of everything you're doing, but the fact is that we are often on autopilot.
Take the interesting but also tiring experience of conference attendance. Here you are, attempting to focus on one panel discussion after another, make a good impression on peers, network to an appropriate degree, and not spill coffee on yourself while awkwardly taking notes in an uncomfortable folding chair. You have no conception of what the weather is outside, are possibly jetlagged, and are dreading another long march to the bathroom, which is counterintuitively located on the opposite side of the building.
But there is hope: the conference breaks, and you are ushered by nice people and cheery signposts to the buffet. Hurrah, some food to restart the thinking process!
What do you choose to eat? It turns out that your brain is a lot less involved in this important decision than you would it expect it to be.
An experimental breakfast
In a recent PLOSone paper, researchers Brian Wansink and Andrew S. Hanks explore how people fill their plates at a buffet using the most simple and elegant of experimental designs: food order. One buffet line featured breakfast heavyweights like cheesy eggs, bacon, and potatoes as the first options and the other one started with fruit, yogurt, and granola. Altogether, both tables had the same seven foods -- the only difference was the order they were presented in.
The 124 studied conference attendees were then directed, at random, to one line or another and their food selections observed.
As it happened, what was seen first in the buffet line had a significant effect on what was selected. When encountering cheesy eggs first, 75% of diners took some; when encountering them last, only 29% did. The same happened with fruit: 86% of people who saw fruit first took some, compared to only 54% of people who saw fruit last.
The other crazy thing is that the first option had an influence on all the other foods that people choose. You're already taking cheesy eggs, so it makes sense to add some bacon and potatoes, right? Right: 65% of cheesy-eggs-first diners also took either bacon or eggs, compared to only 20% of fruit-first diners.
All in, "the first three food items a person encountered in the buffet comprised 65.7% of their total plate."
In other words, much as we'd like to think that we're paying attention to our surroundings, especially on an important issue like what to have for breakfast... we simply are not.
Lessons from the buffet line
Brian Wansink is also the author of the books Mindless Eating and Slim by Design, which stress the importance of environment in shaping our eating habits. His research has basically led him to conclude that we can embrace our mindlessness by adjusting our environments to help prompt better food decisions -- rather than trying to force ourselves to be aware of everything all the time.
The lesson from this study is that what you see first tends to be what you go with. At your next conference, you could interrupt the process by choosing to start at the healthier end of the buffet line (adhering to rules about which side to start from is so boring anyway).
At home or work, you could change environment so that instead of seeing candy bars and donuts when you walk into the kitchen, you see a bowl of fruit. You open the fridge, and instead of Coca Cola you find milk or sparkling water.
Considering the implications, I can't help but wonder how this might apply to other walks of life. Eating is important, but so is exercise. How can I exercise more mindlessly? Work more productively? The list goes on.
To learn more, take a look at "Slim by Design: Serving Healthy Foods First in Buffet Lines Improves Overall Meal Selection" by Brian Wansink and Andrew S. Hanks.