We often think of fast food as a simple, quick, time-saving meal while we’re on the go. Families especially embrace the ability to fill up for a quick lunch or dinner without all the fuss of cooking (especially if they are already out shopping or going to the movies). All of this makes fast food a multi-billion dollar industry.
The lack of nutritional value in most fast food — such as that found at McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell or KFC — has been well-documented in numerous studies and documentaries. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of calories and sodium in a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese (740 calories, 42 grams of fat, and 1380 mg of sodium) or a Whopper with Cheese (720 calories, 44 grams of fat, and 1240 mg of sodium).
But few researchers have explored the psychological effects of fast food. Does fast food impact our lives in other, perhaps more subtle ways?
That’s why Zhong & DeVoe (2010) set to find out. In three small experiments conducted on three different groups of undergraduate college students, they found:
- Unconscious exposure to fast-food symbols increased reading speed when there was no time constraint
- Thinking about eating fast food increased preferences for time-saving products
- Mere exposure to fast food reduced people’s willingness to be patient and save, leading them to choose a financially inferior option
In the first experiment, 57 subjects were divided into two groups — the fast food group and a control group. The fast food group was told to focus on the center of a computer screen while subliminal imagery of fast food logos were flashed in the corners of the screen. The control group had the same task, but the logos were replaced by blank squares. In both conditions, the conscious mind cannot perceive the logos, because they were displayed for only a short time (12 ms). Immediately after the task, participants saw a computer screen containing a 29-word instruction and a 320-word description of Toronto which they were instructed to read and move on to the next screen when done. The researchers found that subjects’ reading speed was significantly faster in the fast food condition as compared to the control group.
In the second experiment, researchers wanted to test the hypothesis that exposure to fast-food priming increases preference for time-saving products relative to control products. The researchers randomly assigned 91 undergraduate students to recall either a time they had a meal at a fast-food establishment or the last time they went grocery shopping (control condition). Participants then completed an ostensibly unrelated marketing survey in which they rated the desirability of the eight products on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very desirable). In this experiment, participants primed with fast food desired the time-saving products more than the control products.
In the third and final experiment, 58 “undergraduate students were randomly assigned to rate the aesthetics of four different logos. In the fast-food condition, two of the logos were from well-known fast-food franchises (McDonald’s and KFC); in the control condition, these logos were replaced by the logos of two inexpensive diners, to control for the inexpensiveness dimension of fast food that may be relevant to preferences regarding saving.” Then subjects were given a series of choices between receiving different amounts of money at different times, such as “$3 today” or “$7 in 1 week” (the amount of money given in 1 week varied between the series of choices). Those exposed to the fast food logos were more likely to accept a smaller payment now rather than wait for a larger payment in a week.
All in all, the researchers found through these three experiments that mere exposure to fast food or fast food symbols (like the Golden Arches at the beginning of this article) is enough to change the way we experience events in our life, regardless of whether time saving is needed or beneficial (such as when we’re lounging around at home), as the researchers note:
These findings suggest some ironic implications. Although time-saving goals can certainly increase time efficiency, the activation and pursuit of these goals upon exposure to fast-food concepts are automatic and not contingent on the context.
Thus, exposure to fast food may increase reading speed whether one is at work, where time efficiency matters, or relaxing at home.
Furthermore, simply viewing a fast food logo led participants in the third experiment to make poorer money decisions. So you may want to avoid any exposure to fast food logos while doing your taxes or making important financial decisions!
Behold the power of modern marketing and its subtle, complex influences. While fast food does indeed save us time, it may be saving us even more time than we realized — or wanted — in unrelated areas in our lives. Fast food may not only be giving us a quick meal, it may also be speeding up our entire perception of time.
Zhong, C-B. & DeVoe, S.E. (2010). You Are How You Eat: Fast Food and Impatience. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610366090