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Your Brain on Fast Food


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Some kids more readily recognize Ronald McDonald than the President of the United States of America. Sad, right?

Check out this exchange, from the 2004 movie Super Size Me:
Morgan Spurlock: [to kids] I’m gonna show you some pictures and I want you to tell me who they are.
Children: OK.
Morgan Spurlock: [Showing a picture of George Washington] Who’s that?
Child: George Washington?
Morgan Spurlock: Good. Who was he?
Children: He was the 4th president. He freed the slaves. He could never tell a lie.
Morgan Spurlock: [Shows picture that you can't see] Who’s that?
Child: George W. Bush?
Morgan Spurlock: No. That’s a good guess though.
[Shows picture and its a picture of Jesus]
Morgan Spurlock: Who is this?
[Shows a picture of Wendy]
Child: Wendy!
Morgan Spurlock: Nice!
Morgan Spurlock: Who’s that?
[Shows picture of Ronald MacDonald]
Child: MacDonald, Ronald MacDonald.
Child: MacDonald!

Morgan Spurlock: What does he do?
Child: He helps people at the cash register.
Child: He works at MacDonald’s. I love the pancakes and sausage!
Child: He brings everyone of his friends to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal

Morgan Spurlock: Where have you seen him?
Child: On television, on the commercials.
Child: He’s the character that made McDonald’s, and he does a lot of funny stuff on TV.

fast-food-logos.bmp
ResearchBlogging.orgYou’re probably not surprised that we readily recognize symbols of the fast food that is so ubiquitous in our society. But would you believe that even a brief subliminal delivery of those symbols can actually affect your behavior, even when it comes to things having nothing at all to do with eating or food?

Previous studies have demonstrated that brief exposure to stimuli can alter social behavior. In one study, for example, participants saw pictures of a fine dining restaurant and subsequently behaved with better manners in an eating task. In this experiment, the experimenters wondered whether brief exposure to fast food stimuli would alter reading speed.

First, the participants read a short paragraph unrelated to food. This was used to determine a baseline reading speed. Then, they did a lexical decision task – in this sort of task, words are flashed quickly on a computer screen, and the individual must decide whether or not the stimulus flashed was a real word (e.g. tube, wind, sock) or a made-up nonword (e.g. zube, dind, solk). But the experimenters didn’t actually care about their responses to this task because while they were doing it, in the corners of the screen, flashing objects were presented subliminally for just 12 milliseconds. In the fast food condition, these were fast food logos. In the control condition, they were just colored squares.

By flashing the images so quickly, the experimenters were able to ensure that their perception did not reach consciousness. After this experimental manipulation, participants were given several paragraphs to read on the computer screen, and the time taken to read the entire passage was recorded.

After the experiment was over, participants in BOTH conditions reported that they simply perceived colored blocks in the corners, but nothing meaningful.

The individuals in the experimental group, who were subliminally exposed to fast food logos, read the passage significantly faster than the control group, even after controlling for baseline reading speed. It should be noted that there was no time pressure in the reading task. Despite this, at the unconscious level, exposure to fast food stimuli increased reading speed by an average of 15 seconds.

A second experiment addressed a different form of impatience: preference for time-saving devices. According to the experimenters, the extent to which an object saves time is only one of many variables to consider when choosing between two alternatives. Others are environmental friendliness, color, quality, and so forth.

First, participants were asked to recall a time that they ate at a fast food restaurant (experimental condition) or went to the grocery store (control condition). Then, they were given a “marketing survey” in which they rated the desirability of eight products from 1 (not at all) to 7 (highly desirable). The items to be compared were things like a four-slice toaster and a single-slice toaster, or a 2-in-1 shampoo and a regular shampoo.

As expected, participants primed with fast food imagery desired time-saving products more than their alternatives. Those in the control condition showed no difference between time-saving and standard products. The authors conclude that thinking about fast food makes people impatient and strengthens their desire to complete tasks as quickly as possible.

The final experiment investigated the potential relationship between fast food and willingness to save money. Participants were asked to rate various aesthetic aspects of logos. The logos in the experimental group were from popular fast food chains, and in the control group were from popular local diners. This way, the logos were matched for inexpensiveness but not for time efficiency. Then, they were given options to receive money at different times. Each choice was between receiving “$3.00 today” and “X in one week,” where X was $3.05, $3.10, $3.25, $3.50, $3.75, $4.00, $4.50, $5.00, $5.50, $6.00, or $7.00.

Participants initially exposed to fast food logos required a much higher X value in order to prefer to wait a week. In other words, they were more likely to accept a smaller payment today than a larger payment next week. Fast food seems to have made people impatient to a point where they could potentially put their economic interests at risk.

Fast food represents the pinnacle of time efficiency and instant gratification, but the consequences of fast food’s ubiquity in modern culture are not completely understood. This research suggests that the behaviors elicited by exposure to fast food-related stimuli are automatic and context-independent. Exposure to fast food might increase reading speed at work (where this might be useful) or at home (where this might not be useful). I wonder if seeing all the gigantic signs and billboards advertising fast food on the streets and freeways makes people drive faster (this would be a really really interesting study, with really important implications!)

fast-food-exit-sign.jpg

Is fast food another result of a cultural drive towards time efficiency and impatience, or is it the cause? This is an open question. But given this evidence, it seems pretty clear that the fast food culture that we live in not only changes the way people eat but also fundamentally changes the way they experience things. If it can make you read faster, what else can it do? Fast food might have a much broader impact on human behavior and decision-making than previously considered.

Zhong CB, & Devoe SE (2010). You are how you eat: fast food and impatience. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (5), 619-22. PMID: 20483836

Jason G. Goldman About the Author: Dr. Jason G. Goldman received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studied the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. Jason is also an editor at ScienceSeeker and Editor of Open Lab 2010. He lives in Los Angeles, CA. Follow on . Follow on Twitter @jgold85.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. Cassidy 9:09 am 05/27/2010

    Mr. Gatti’s is a pizza chain. I don’t know its range, but I lived in Nashville for a year when I was like 6 and it was the restaurant of choice after soccer games because they had a buffet. I remember the chocolate pudding fondly…

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  2. 2. Richie 9:28 am 05/27/2010

    I actually think this finding is relatively obvious. The logos referred to “fast” food did they not/ This probably primed concepts realting to speed, resulting in the experimental findings.
    The real question is: what are the limits to priming? And given its seeming ubiquity, how can we ever control for it?

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  3. 3. DEstlund 9:59 am 05/27/2010

    Gatti’s Pizza is based here in Austin, TX. They’re basically like pizza hut except that they use smoked provolone instead of mozzarella. “Mr. Gatti’s” is what they were called when I was growing up. They’re now just Gatti’s Pizza: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gatti%27s_Pizza

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  4. 4. MommaD 10:06 am 05/27/2010

    Fast food signs make me drive faster only if I have to use their restroom.

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  5. 5. Twitch 10:38 am 05/27/2010

    Also, no one mentioned this yet, but Mr. Gatti’s is particularly awful pizza. When I first moved to Austin I went there. It’s terrible.

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  6. 6. gelf 9:17 pm 05/27/2010

    I’ve lived most of my life in areas that don’t have ready-access to fast food, and the people there drive slower, speak more slowly (though sometimes more articulately), are less likely to run out & buy the latest thing, slower to warm up to strangers, less like to get angry & fly off the handle. When I was younger it was very frustrating, but now that I’m an adult, I appreciate the reduced stress.

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  7. 7. Peter 6:16 am 05/28/2010

    Haven’t read the article but just saw that some people are unable to replicate other similar priming findings by Zhong (see URL above).

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  8. 8. Taylor 12:15 pm 06/26/2010

    Mr. gattis is amazing, they have a cheap pizza buffet and rigged games in the back.

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  9. 9. Kate 4:36 pm 07/10/2010

    There we go, I think they found a benefit of ‘fast food’.

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