Scientists found we are such creatures of habit that once we have associated a place with a certain kind of food, like popcorn at the cinema, we will keep eating it - even if it's stale.
Researchers from the University of Southern California devised a test to see what causes us to overeat.
They gave people about to enter a cinema a bucket of just-popped fresh popcorn, or stale week-old popcorn. Moviegoers who didn’t usually eat popcorn at the movies ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn because it just didn't taste good. But those who said they typically had popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. In other words, for those in the habit of snacking at the movies, it made no difference whether the popcorn tasted good or not.
Wendy Wood said: 'People believe their eating behaviour is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn. But once we've formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good.”
David Neal said: “When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and makes us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present.”
The researchers also gave popcorn to a people who watching movie clips in a meeting room, rather than in a cinema. In the meeting room, a space not usually associated with popcorn, it mattered a lot if the popcorn tasted good. Outside of the cinema context, even habitual movie popcorn eaters ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn, demonstrating the extent to which environmental cues can trigger automatic eating behaviour.
“The results show just how powerful our environment can be in triggering unhealthy behaviour,” Mr Neal said. “Sometimes willpower and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead.”
Maybe we can try to eat the popcorn with our non-dominant hand?