Thursday, May 24, 2012

Eat More Chocolate? Depends on the Screensaver

Sculpture by
Alberto Giacometti
Nutrition Action Healthletter is a publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest that my husband and I have enjoyed for several years. CSPI is a "nonprofit health-advocacy group...[that] mounts educational programs and presses for changes in government and corporate policies."

The group pushes for guidelines that protect kids from harmful junk food advertising. (See my April post for more information about that topic.) They've also developed a smartphone app called "Chemical Cuisine" that provides the "latest information about all the common food additives, and rates their risks to the entire population or vulnerable groups." You can get the app from the iTunes or Android market for 99 cents, according to the group's web site.

Painting by Mark Rothko
The newest edition of the magazine cites an interesting study that uses computers and screensavers as an independent variable. The research relates to decision making and eating habits, but it also exemplifies a basic way that computers can interact with people and their cognitive processes.

Researchers counted the number of chocolate pieces that people ate while in a room with just a computer and screensaver (Appetite 58: 1109, 2012). People were asked to sit in a room with a bowl of chocolates for five minutes. Those that were in the room with a screensaver showing an image of a thin human sculpture by Alberto Giacometti averaged 4.7 chocolates eaten, while those that were exposed to the screen saver showing an image by painter Mark Rothko ate 6.4 chocolates. Most participants claimed they didn't even notice the computer or screensaver in the room.

It seems that subtle cues can persuade us to eat more. I would argue that subtle environmental cues can persuade us to do a lot of things. It would be interesting to see similar studies that research other human habits, like interpersonal communication and buying habits. Visual images and cues matter, even when they are not a focal point.

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