Dec. 22, 2006

'Mindless autopilot' drives people to dramatically underestimate how many daily food decisions they make, Cornell study finds

People estimate that, on average, they make about 15 food- and beverage-related decisions each day. But the truth is, they make more than 15 times that -- more than 200 such decisions.

Commenting on his new Cornell study, Brian Wansink, the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and of Applied Economics at Cornell, observed, "So many food decisions are made on mindless autopilot." The problem with making so many more food decisions than we are aware of, he said, is that "each of these small decisions is a point where a person can be unknowingly influenced by environmental cues."

When Wansink and Jeffery Sobal, Cornell professor or nutritional sciences, asked 139 university staff and students to estimate how many decisions they make about food each day, the average response was 15. However, when the volunteers then answered specific questions about when, what, how much and where they ate and who made decisions about meals, snacks and beverages, the researchers found that the staffers and students actually made an average of 221 food-related decisions each day.

The study is published in the January issue of Environment and Behavior.

"It's really easier than we think to let small things around us -- plate size, package size, people around us, distractions -- influence these 200-plus decisions because we are not aware of them in the first place," said Wansink.

"Rather than try to overly obsess about our food decisions, it's better to change the environment so that it works for us rather than against us, making it easier to make decisions to eat less," suggested Wansink.

Tips to prevent holiday overeating

To turn things around after a season of mindless eating and prepare for those New Year's resolutions, Wansink offers these research-based tips from his recent book, "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam Books):