A new study finds that exposure to fast food does more than just add calories — it is associated with potentially detrimental lifestyle and financial choices.
Specifically, researchers from the Rotman School of Management discovered the mere exposure to fast food and related symbols can make people impatient, increase an individual’s preference for time-saving products, and reduce a person’s willingness to save.
“Fast food represents a culture of time efficiency and instant gratification,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, who co-wrote the paper with colleague Sanford DeVoe to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.
“The problem is that the goal of saving time gets activated upon exposure to fast food regardless of whether time is a relevant factor in the context. For example, walking faster is time efficient when one is trying to make a meeting, but it’s a sign of impatience when one is going for a stroll in the park.
“We’re finding that the mere exposure to fast food is promoting a general sense of haste and impatience regardless of the context.”
In one experiment, the researchers flashed fast food symbols, such as the golden arch of McDonald’s, on a computer screen for a few milliseconds, so quick that participants couldn’t consciously identify what they saw.
They found that this unconscious exposure increased participants’ reading speed in a subsequent task compared to those in a control condition, even when there was no advantage to finishing sooner.
In another study, participants who recalled a time when they ate at a fast-food restaurant subsequently preferred time-saving products—such as two-in-one shampoo—over regular products.
A final experiment found people exposed to fast food logos exhibited greater reluctance for saving by choosing a smaller immediate payment rather than opting for a much larger delayed payment.
“Fast food is one of many technologies that allow us to save time,” says DeVoe. “But the ironic thing is that by constantly reminding us of time efficiency, these technologies can lead us to feel much more impatience. A fast food culture that extols saving time doesn’t just change the way we eat but it can also fundamentally alter the way we experience our time. For example, leisure activities that are supposed to be relaxing can come to be experienced through the colored glasses of impatience.”
The researchers point out that it’s impossible to know whether fast food in part caused the value for time efficiency in our culture or is merely a consequence of it—but it’s clear from their findings that exposure to fast food reinforces an emphasis on impatience and instant gratification.
“Given the role that financial impatience played in the current economic crisis,” says Chen-Bo Zhong, “we need to move beyond counting calories when we examine the consequences of fast food as it is also influencing our everyday psychology and behavior in a wider set of domains than has been previously thought.”