How External Cues Make Us Overeat

What made you eat more of that ice cream than you intended? Why do you always eat too much when you go out for Chinese?

If you’re like most people, external cues influence how much you eat, which foods you eat, how fast you eat, whether you enjoy what you eat, and more.

Brian Wansink of Cornell University has spent a career unearthing those cues. The trick isn’t just to uncover them, he says, but to change them.


“Don’t say, ‘Now that I know it, it won’t happen,’ ” cautions Wansink. “It will happen.”

His solution? “It’s easier to change your environment than it is to change your mind.”

Wansink is the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing in the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he directs the Food and Brand Lab, and we asked him what influences how much we eat.

Q: Are big servings the only influence on how much we eat?

A: No. Very simple things have a tremendous influence not just on how much but on how frequently we eat.

We studied secretaries who had won an award for being great that year. We said, “Congratulations. We’re going to give you all the candy you can eat for a month!”

So we put candies either on their desks or six feet from their desks in either a clear or an opaque bowl, and every day we refilled the candy dishes. And we found that a typical secretary on a typical day would eat about nine Hershey’s Kisses — which is about 225 calories — if they were sitting on her desk.

But if we moved the candy dish six feet away, they ate only four candies — or about 125 fewer calories a day. Over the course of a year, that would translate into 11 to 12 pounds of extra weight they would gain by having the candy on the desk instead of six feet away.

We asked the secretaries if six feet was just too far to walk, but they said, “No, it’s just that the six feet gave me pause to think, ‘Am I really that hungry?’” And half the time, they said no.

Seeing the candies also made a difference. Secretaries who got a clear bowl averaged two more candies per day than those who got an opaque bowl.

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