Can't Concentrate? Maybe It's the Fast Food

Americans have been saving less and less of their income in recent decades, a trend that has only recently abated. At the same time, we have been eating more and more meals at fast-food restaurants.

Coincidence? Perhaps not. A new study suggests thinking about fast-food chains — or even being exposed momentarily to their logos — can increase impatience and intensify one’s desire for immediate gratification.

Two University of Toronto researchers, Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe, reach that conclusion in a paper titled “You Are How You Eat,” just published in the journal Psychological Science. It is, appropriately, a quick read.

Zhong and DeVoe conducted three experiments to determine how our increasing tendency to grab a quick bite at Burger King has affected other areas of our lives.

In the first, 57 university undergraduates were instructed to concentrate on the center of their computer screens while colorful objects flashed in the corners.

For half the students, those peripheral images — which flashed by too quickly to register in their conscious minds — included logos from McDonalds, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains.

All were then asked to read a 350-word text, and move to the next screen when they were finished. Those who had been exposed to the logos took less time to complete the task, suggesting to the researchers that they were impatient to move on.

In the second experiment, 91 undergraduates were asked to recall either a meal they had at a fast-food restaurant or their last visit to a grocery. They then completed “an ostensibly unrelated marketing survey” in which they rated the desirability of various time-saving products.

Those who had thought about the fast-food franchise rated the products more favorably than those who had been contemplating their sojourn to Safeway. “These findings suggest that thinking about fast food makes individuals impatient and strengthens their desires to complete tasks as quickly as possible,” the researchers conclude.

In the final experiment, 58 undergraduates were asked to rate the aesthetics of corporate logos. Half the students assessed images representing fast-food franchises (including the famous golden arches), while the others looked at logos for inexpensive diners. All then participated in a standard experiment in which they were asked to choose between receiving $3 immediately or a larger amount in a week.

“Participants who were merely exposed to the fast-food logos … were much more likely to accept a smaller payment now rather than wait for a larger payment in a week, compared to those in the control condition,” the researchers report. “Fast food seemed to have made people impatient in a manner that could put their economic interests at risk.”

Zhong and DeVoe concede it is an open question whether the rise of fast food is a cause or a consequence of our culture of impatience. “What we can infer from our studies,” they conclude, “is that exposure to fast food and related symbols reinforces an emphasis on impatience and instant gratification, and that fast food can have a far broader impact on individuals’ behaviors and choices than previously thought.”

And here we’ve been blaming Alan Greenspan for the low level of our 401Ks, when Ronald McDonald was hiding in plain sight all along.

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