Fast food culture prompts instant gratification

Averie MacDonald

Canadians have a new reason to be wary of their fast food consumption, and it has nothing to do with our waistlines, a new study from the University of Toronto says.

The study is called You Are How You Eat: Fast Food and Impatience. It was conducted by professors Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe and was recently published online in the popular academic journal Psychological Science.

Through a series of experiments, Zhong and DeVoe show that exposure to fast food can actually increase haste and a desire for instant gratification in consumers, even in situations that don’t involve eating.

Zhong, the study’s lead author, said he and his co-author undertook the study to investigate North America’s fast food culture from a new angle.

Fast food logos like this one may be responsible for increased impatience in consumers.

“I think there is a culture more and more so (in North America) that people prefer to have instant gratification,” said Zhong. “And what our study has demonstrated is that fast food, in part, reinforces that culture of time-urgency.”

The study showed subliminal exposure to fast food symbols can actually increase people’s reading speed. It also showed simply thinking about fast food can boost our preferences for time-saving goods like 2-in-1 shampoo. The last experiment showed fast food exposure may even cause a person to make hasty financial decisions, valuing smaller immediate gains over larger sums paid out in the future.

In comments on Internet science blogs like Not Exactly Rocket Science, some readers are questioning the real-world applicability of the experiments’ results. All three experiments were done using University of Toronto undergraduate students, whom are already likely to be hurried because of the busy student lifestyle.

But Mike Mulvey, a professor of marketing at the University of Ottawa, said the study’s results could certainly have an impact on fast food marketing campaigns.

“As a consumer advocate I’d be really concerned at how many (advertisers) take the study results prescriptively and use them to their advantage,” he said.

Barry Martin said he simply “filters out” most fast food messages these days. Martin is a member of Slow Food Toronto, a chapter of a worldwide movement, which began in Italy in the 1980’s and promotes the importance of seeking out, preparing and enjoying wholesome food.

Martin said North American culture is bent on consumption, and he became a slow food enthusiast because he wanted to create a more appreciative relationship with food for himself and his family.

Martin is also the owner of a marketing and communications design firm in Toronto. He said he knows all too well how fast food advertisers prey on peoples’ subconscious minds.

“If you’re in the fast food business … your job is not to make friends or to be helpful,” Martin said. “Your job is to get money out of people.”

He said, like Mulvey, he believes fast food companies could use the study’s results to their advantage by manipulating the sense of haste in consumers.

Zhong said he hopes his new study will help people to think critically about the cultural implications of North America’s obsession with efficiency.

“There are sociological studies that say that the more tools we have to increase time saving … (the more) it actually increases the feeling that you’re running out of time,” he said.  “And I think we need to think about whether this is a healthy culture.”


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