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Study claims food choices are habitual

The idea of week-old popcorn might sound unappetizing, but a recent Duke study showed that a surprising number of people will still eat it.

A human-behavioral study has demonstrated that surroundings play a significant role in human eating habits. Duke researchers drew this conclusion by comparing popcorn consumption among different moviegoers.

“People think that they are eating because of how appetizing their food is, but it is clear that this is not the case,” said David Neal, a post-doctoral research fellow in psychology and neuroscience and the lead psychologist involved in the study.

Neal sent 98 people to Griffith Film Theater on the pretense that they were participating in a survey to discover what draws consumers to the movies. Each person received a box of popcorn. Some boxes contained fresh popcorn and others had the week-old, stale variety.

“The frequent moviegoers ate the popcorn regardless of taste because their actions were controlled by habit and the surrounding environment.”

Those who only occasionally ate popcorn during movies tended to avoid the stale sample and ate exclusively from the fresh box. Frequent moviegoers who habitually ate popcorn in the theater, however, were indiscriminate in their popcorn preferences, eating both stale and fresh popcorn in roughly equal amounts, according to the study.

“When people are in an environment in which they associate with a certain behavior, they tend to perform the action before thinking about it,” Neal said. “By the time they realize, it’s already too late.”

Some students said they agreed with the study’s findings, especially given their share of personal experiences.

“I could definitely see myself eating the week-old popcorn,” said freshman Robert Ansel, a self-described, avid moviegoer. “If I go to the movies, I get popcorn—it’s just what people do.”

Some members of the Duke community, however, remained skeptical.

“I just can’t imagine people eating week-old popcorn out of habit,” said freshman Michael Gloudemans. “It’d be too unappetizing to stomach.”

Despite the influence of environment in eating behavior, there are still ways to combat bad habits, Neal noted.

“A lot of bad habits are attributed to the environment—make sure you are not exposed to these triggers, then you will slowly begin to break your habits,” said Neal. “For example, if you have a habit of going to the McDonalds in the Bryan Center because it’s on your way to class every day, switch up your route so you don’t put yourself in that situation.”

From this popcorn study, the next step is not only to conduct further research, but also to take the findings to more practical applications.

“Many current help programs have this ingrained perception that bad habits are controlled by preferences and not by the environment,” Neal said. “The next step would be to figure out what types of programs will help people break their habits effectively so that they can live healthier lives in the future.”


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