What Popcorn Can Teach Us About Habits

Is popcorn eating an automatic behaviour?

Can just sitting in a cinema and watching a movie subconsciously influence you to eat more popcorn?

These are some of the questions Neal and colleagues (2011) set out to answer with a series of experiments.

Can a setting subconsciously influence you to eat popcorn?

In an experiment by Neal et al. (2011), participants were required to watch movie trailers and music videos in either a cinema context or in a meeting room context.

They were given a bottle of water and a box of popcorn, which either had fresh popcorn or stale popcorn in it.

They viewed and rated the movie trailers/music videos for 15 minutes.

Afterwards, they were asked about how frequently they ate popcorn at the cinema to test their habit strength. They were also asked about their liking to the popcorn they had just eaten.

The participants were then divided into groups depending on popcorn eating habits: low, moderate, and strong.

What was found was that the participants who received the stale popcorn didn’t like it very much. Quite surprisingly however, the ‘moderate’ and ‘high’ groups still ate a lot of the stale popcorn, especially in a cinema context.

What about eating fresh popcorn?

What people say and what people do are two different things

You’d think that if someone said that they didn’t eat much popcorn then you’d have reason to believe them.

The key finding of this study however suggests that what people say and what they do are two different things.

It was found that even though participants had varying popcorn eating habits (i.e. low, moderate, high), they would all still eat very similar amounts of fresh popcorn in a cinema setting.

Those who had ‘low’ popcorn eating habits ate just as much popcorn in a cinema as the participants with ‘high’ popcorn eating habits.

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BreeAnn via Flickr

It goes to show that if you have an attitude to a behaviour, it doesn’t necessarily affect the way you behave towards it. You can say you don’t eat a lot of popcorn, but when you’re in a cinema you just can’t help it.

That’s because the concepts of  ‘cinema’ and ‘popcorn’ go hand-in-hand.

The link between the two is deeply buried in the unconscious parts of our minds.

Eating popcorn during a movie in a cinema is as firmly ingrained in our minds as it is in our culture.

It’s just something you do in a cinema. As a result, it’s a habit.

Habits are automatic and are practiced subconsciously.

And habits are reinforced by cues such as certain contexts, just like a cinema reinforces popcorn eating.

What can you do to disrupt a (popcorn eating) habit?

Get rid of the cue that triggers the habit

So what happened when the participants watched a movie in a meeting room setting? Did they eat a lot of popcorn?

Participants with ‘low’ popcorn eating habits didn’t eat very much whereas ‘moderate’ and ‘high’ popcorn eating participants didn’t eat that much more.

So we see that just by changing the setting of where the movie is watched, the amount of popcorn that was eaten drastically changed.

Simply put, the popcorn eating habit was disrupted by changing the cue that triggered the habit (i.e the cue being the cinema setting).

Disrupt the automaticity of the habit

Another study by Neal et al. (2011) found that you will eat less popcorn if you use your non-dominant hand to eat it.

This disrupts the automaticity of the habit and brings the behaviour under intentional control.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

 

 

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