Want to read faster, think more creatively, and be a better person? Buy more brand-name stuff.

Note: I’m in the depths of finishing up some summer projects and studying for my qualifying exams, so this seems like a good time to bring out a post from the archives. This was originally blogged at IonPsych on 2/4/2011…and was actually my first-ever blog post!

What are some consequences of eating too much fast food?

Weight gain? Check. Higher cholesterol? Check.

Increased reading speed?

Wait. Back up.

Yes – as it turns out, fast food can have consequences that reach far beyond the bigger-bellied symptoms that we already know to look out for. Those iconographic golden arches may be so inherently related to concepts of haste, time efficiency, and instant gratification that simply being exposed to them can influence more than just our eating behavior.

A recent paper published by Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford E. DeVoe in Psychological Science reports that incidental exposure to fast food can alter behaviors related to speed, efficiency, and impulsivity across many different domains, even those unrelated to eating. In this series of studies, the researchers exposed half of the participants to fast food concepts by subliminally flashing six well-known fast food logos, asking the participants to recall a time they ate a meal at a fast-food establishment, or explicitly asking them to rate the visual appeal of two fast food logos. Zhong and DeVoe then compared these participants to others who were exposed to neutral images or wrote about non-fast food experiences and examined if the fast-food signals would activate the kinds of mental concepts that would influence various eating-irrelevant behaviors.

Are you reading faster yet?

What they found was that the participants who thought about fast food did, in fact, act differently. The ‘fast food’ participants showed a strong preference for time-saving products, rating items such as 2-in-1 shampoo, 3-in-1 skin care solution, and high-efficiency detergent more positively than control participants did, and also more positively than the “regular” versions of those products.1 When the participants were asked to choose between a small amount of money now or a larger amount of money in a week, the ‘fast food’ subjects were significantly more likely to accept the smaller payment now rather than wait for the larger payoff. Finally, the ‘fast food’ participants read a 320-word passage roughly 15 seconds faster on average. If that does not seem like a lot, keep in mind that 320 words is approximately the length of this blog post so far, and 15 seconds is about how long it takes to walk up two flights of stairs. Quite a difference to arise from seeing a few pictures of Colonel Sanders!

This paper is just one example in a long line of studies about the ways in which everyday exposure to different brands and products can influence our behavior in unanticipated ways. One of the first studies to really examine this was conducted by Grainne M. Fitzsimons, Tanya L. Chartrand, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons in 2008. In this study, the researchers demonstrated that participants who were subliminally primed with the Apple logo (a brand that consistently encourages its consumers to “Think Different”) were more creative in a standard laboratory creativity task than those who were exposed to the IBM logo. They also determined that participants who were merely exposed to the Disney Channel logo were more honest and sincere than those who saw logos for the E! Channel. More recently, Chen-Bo Zhong and Nina Mazar also showed that participants who were exposed to products that were branded as ‘green’ were more altruistic and charitable than those who just saw regular products.2

What a concept! According to the implications of this research, working in a cafe surrounded by patrons on MacBooks might make you write more creatively. Driving by a McDonald’s on the way to work might make you pick up your speed and get more frustrated with the slow driver in the next lane. Using a ‘green’ coffee cup might make you more likely to hold the door open for a stranger. The important thing to note about these studies is that none of the participants consciously recognized the effect of the brands on their behavior – in several of the studies, they didn’t even realize that they had seen the logos. Any effect that these brands had on their behavior was subconscious and, as a result, largely uncontrollable. Also, the effect had nothing to do with the product itself – it was driven entirely by the brand name. When participants in the fast food study were prompted to think about diners – which are also fast, cheap food establishments – they did not show the same effects. Similarly, the participants in the Apple/IBM study specifically noted that they did not consider either computer to be superior in terms of quality or performance. The only difference, it seems, is the brand.

So what does this mean? Well, I can’t really tell you that buying McDonald’s will make you finish your reading faster, nor can I say that buying a MacBook will help you come up with better research ideas. But it certainly can’t hurt!

1.High-efficiency detergent does not actually save more time than regular detergent – it is just manufactured for high-efficiency laundry machines. However, this did not seem to make a difference in participants’ responses. Most likely, the effect of the prime simply resulted in a preference for anything that “seems” to be efficient, time-saving, fast, etc. even if this is not necessarily accurate.

2.It should be noted that in the ‘green product’ study participants acted more altruistically when they were exposed to the green products, but less altruistically when they were given the chance to buy them. The explanation provided is that buying the products allowed them to feel like they had ‘done enough good’ and thus had license to act less moral in the future to make up for it. This is an important distinction to consider, especially when thinking about the implications of the studies (e.g. Would actually buying fast food, as opposed to merely looking at the logos, lead people to be slower? Over and above any sluggishness resulting from weight gain and cardiovascular decline, that is…)

Zhong CB, & Devoe SE (2010). You are how you eat: fast food and impatience. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (5), 619-22 PMID: 20483836

Mazar N, & Zhong CB (2010). Do green products make us better people? Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (4), 494-8 PMID: 20424089

Fitzsimons, G., Chartrand, T., & Fitzsimons, G. (2008). Automatic Effects of Brand Exposure on Motivated Behavior: How Apple Makes You “Think Different” Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (1), 21-35 DOI: 10.1086/527269

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One response to “Want to read faster, think more creatively, and be a better person? Buy more brand-name stuff.

  1. Well, I can’t really tell you that buying McDonald’s will make you finish your reading faster (…) But it certainly can’t hurt!

    The subjects responded to seeing the logos, so actually buying/eating the products does not necessarily have anything to do with the effect. At least the research doesn’t suggest that!

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