Posts Tagged ‘Popcorn’

February 10th, 2011


By Kyle Morich

This past Sunday, I hosted my annual Super Bowl party for my family and friends. The ambient noise drowned out much of the game and many of the famously expensive commercials, which for the most part is a good thing (I’m looking at you GoDaddy).  However, one ad I did actually watch this year, for Bud Light, caught my attention.  It reminded me of popcorn.

In a study currently under peer review, a team of researchers led by David Neal1 set out to discover if goals and preferences truly control human behavior.  Neal’s team brought in a large group of moviegoers, gave them a bag of popcorn and a bottle of water, and asked them to review movie trailers.  However, the study wasn’t about the movie trailers, it was about the popcorn.

The researchers divided the moviegoers into two groups.  One group got fresh popcorn, made that day.  The other group got a warmed-up bag of stale popcorn that had been made seven days prior to the experiment.  Upon leaving the theater, the bags of popcorn were collected and weighed to assess how much of the 60-gram bag each moviegoer had eaten.  These moviegoers were then given a version of the Self-Report Habit Index to assess how habitually they ate popcorn whenever they went to the movies.

For non-habitual popcorn eaters, the results are unsurprising.  They ate most of the bag of fresh popcorn and barely touched the stale bags.  For the habitual popcorn eaters, however, the amount eaten was high regardless of the popcorn’s freshness.  They chowed down.  Neal’s team then asked the moviegoers to rate the taste of the popcorn.  Amazingly, the habitual popcorn eaters who received the stale popcorn knew the popcorn tasted bad. But they ate it anyway.  Their behavior was completely controlled by the movie theater context, not their taste.

Just to confirm the role of context in habitual behavior, Neal performed the same experiment again, but in a well-lit laboratory using a small-screen television.  This time, the habitual popcorn eaters wanted nothing to do with the stale popcorn.  Only in a darkened theater, surrounded by the sights, smells, and other stimuli their brains had associated with the context, was the habit cued.