Environmental cues may inform our eating habits even more than the taste of food.
"Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn," posits Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. But according to Wood's research, the grossness of popcorn is immaterial. Under the right circumstances, we'll eat it anyway.
In the hopes of unearthing the most vile human habits, researchers at USC ushered test subjets into a movie theater and gave them some popcorn. Some participants received buckets of freshly popped kernels. Others got tubs of the week-old stale stuff.
Theatergoers who don't generally munch on popcorn while catching a flick had a rational response to the quality differential. They ate much more of the fresh popcorn than they did the stale kind. But participants accustomed to downing popcorn while watching movies had a much more distressing reaction: They ate just as much of the gross stuff as they did the good stuff.
Dimmed lights and a big screen apparently play a role in convincing some of us to empty the stalest of buckets. When researchers sat test subjects down to watch films in an office environment, even regular popcorn consumers didn't feel the need to consume the grody snack. With the right environmental cues, "once we've formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good," Wood says. "We'll eat exactly the same amount, whether it's fresh or stale."
Thankfully, psychologists have developed a strategy to lend a modicum of respectability to the popcorn-scarfing process. If we refuse to think about what we're putting in our mouths, perhaps a team of scientists can trick us into doing it. When researchers asked participants to grab the popcorn with their non-dominant hand, eaters saw their habits disrupted enough to actually "pay attention to what they were eating."