The Hidden Costs of Extra-Value Meals

See Golden Arches, save less? No, not because we shell out $7.99 for meals we could make at home for $3, but because of how our environment subliminally affects our behavior.

The field that studies such effects is called behavioral priming, and among its discoveries are that when we see old people we walk more slowly, when we see a picture of a fancy restaurant we use better manners when we next eat, and when we subliminally see the Apple logo we’re more creative. All of which led Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe of the University of Toronto to wonder: given that “the essence of fast food is not what you eat but how you eat,” as they write in an upcoming paper in Psychological Science, and that “the goal of fast food is to save time” (readers who insist fast-food fried chicken tastes better than homemade are asked to hold their e-mails), how might being surrounded by fast-food outlets affect our behavior? After all, they note, fast food “represents a culture that emphasizes time efficiency and immediate gratification.”

To see whether viewing fast-food symbols affects people in ways unrelated to eating, the researchers did three experiments. In the first experiment, they asked volunteers to watch a computer screen, where logos from McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy’s flashed—too quickly (12 milliseconds) to be consciously noticed but long enough to be subliminally processed. (All the volunteers confirmed later that they saw only color patterns, no logos.) The volunteers then read a 350-word essay. In the second experiment, volunteers were asked to recall a visit to a fast-food place or a grocery-shopping trip, then rated the desirability of various products, either time-savers like a 2-in-1 shampoo and a four-slice toaster or conventional ones such as regular shampoo and a single-slice toaster. In the third experiment, volunteers rated the aesthetic appeal of either McDonald’s and KFC logos or the logos of two inexpensive diners, and then chose between receiving $3 today and some other amount ($3.05, $3.10, $3.25, $3.50, $3.75, $4, $4.50, $5, $5.50, $6, or $7) in a week.

Results? Volunteers subliminally exposed to fast-food logos read faster than volunteers who saw other subliminal images (69 seconds vs. 84). Volunteers who recalled a fast-food meal preferred time-saving products more than volunteers who recalled a grocery-shopping trip. Volunteers who critiqued fast-food logos demanded a much higher premium to forego their immediate $3 than did those who critiqued other logos (17% vs. 11%).

“Even an unconscious exposure to fast-food symbols can automatically increase participants’ reading speed when they are under no time pressure,” the researchers report. “Thinking about fast food increases preferences for time-saving products,” and “mere exposure to fast-food symbols reduced people’s willingness to save and led them to prefer immediate gain over greater future return.” And here we thought the only downsides of fast food were obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Now we can blame it for our abysmally low savings rate, too.