Fast food logos unconsciously trigger fast behaviour

i-72556f41b975f951a3be8453d05cc4a1-McDonalds.jpgLike it or not, the golden arches of McDonalds are one of the most easily recognised icons of the modern world. The culture they represent is one of instant gratification and saved time, of ready-made food that can be bought cheaply and eaten immediately. Many studies have looked at the effects of these foods on our waistlines, but their symbols and brands are such a pervasive part of our lives that you'd expect them to influence the way we think too.

And so they do - Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe have found that fast food can actually induce haste and impatience, in ways that have nothing to do with eating. They showed that subliminal exposure to fast food symbols, such as McDonalds' golden arches, can actually increase people's reading speed. Just thinking about these foods can boost our preferences for time-saving goods and even nudge us towards financial decisions that value immediate gains over future returns. Fast food, it seems, is very appropriately named.

Zhong and DeVoe asked 57 students to stare at the centre of a computer screen while ignoring a stream of objects flashing past in the corners. For some of the students, these flashes included the logos of McDonald's, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King and Wendy's, all appearing for just 12 milliseconds. We can't consciously recognise images that appear this quickly and, indeed, none of the students said that they saw anything other than blocks of colour. 

The students were then asked to read out a 320-word description of Toronto and those who had subconsciously seen the fast food logos were faster. Even though they had no time limit, they whizzed through the text in just 70 seconds. The other students, who were shown blocks of colours in place of the logos, took a more leisurely 84 seconds.

Zhong and DeVoe also found that thoughts of fast food could sway students towards more efficient, time-saving products. They asked 91 students to complete a marketing survey by saying how much they wanted each of five product pairs. One option in each pair was more time-efficient (as rated by an independent panel of 54 people), such as 2-in-1 shampoo rather than regular shampoo or a four-slice toaster versus a one-slice one.

If the students had previously thought about the last time they ate at a fast food joint, they were more likely to prefer the time-saving products that students who had thought about their last visit to the grocery store. Zhong and DeVoe say that this supports their idea that thinking about fast-food makes people impatient. To me, this is the weakest part of their study, for products like 2-in-1 shampoo are as much about saving money (perhaps more so) as they are about saving time. Fast food is not only served quickly but priced cheaply, and it may be this aspect that altered the students' preference.

However, the duo addressed this issue in their third experiment. They randomly asked 58 students to judge one of four different logos on their aesthetic qualities, including those of McDonald's, KFC and two cheap diners. Later, they were told that they could either have $3 immediately or a larger sum in a week. They had to say how much it would take to make them delay their windfall.

As predicted, those who considered the fast food logos were more impatient, and demanded significantly more money to forego their smaller immediate payment in favour of a larger future one. It seems that they put a greater price on instant gratification over larger future returns

Of course, these results can't tell us if fast food actually contributes to a culture of impatience and hurry, or if it's just a symptom of it. Nor do they say anything about whether this effect is good or bad. That would all depend on context. As Zhong and DeVoe note, a brisk walking speed is a good thing if you're trying to get to a meeting but it would be a sign of impatience if you're aiming for a leisurely stroll in the park.

Their study does, however, suggest that fast food and the need to save time are inextricably linked in our minds so that even familiar brands can make us behave more hastily. They could even affect our economic decisions, harming our finances in the long run. As Zhong and DeVoe say, even our leisure activites are "experienced through the coloured glasses of impatience" and "it is possible that a fast food culture that extols saving time not only changes the way people eat, but also fundamentally alters the way they experience events".

Reference: Psychological Science If this link isn't working, read why here

Photo: by Rene Sinn

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We can't consciously recognise images that appear this quickly and, indeed, none of the students said that they saw anything other than blocks of colour.

If they couldn't "consciously" recognize the symbols -- how the hell did it change their behavior? How else does one perceive symbols other than "consciously"?

Fast food is priced cheaply? How so? Measured by the amount of money spent per person per meal, fast food is surely the most expensive type of food you would find in a typical person's week.

I got impatient while reading this so ate a cheeseburger instead.

Frog - your brain does a huge amount of processing without you being consciously aware of it and it can strongly affect our behaviour, including important stuff like our voting choices and our political attitudes. See here and here and here.

Always said it was no coincidence that the logo for Waterstone's (all v respectable LOOKING, but "3-for-2" speedy-bookselling behemoth really) is the golden arches upside down :)

I skimmed this post ;) but nice job as usual, Ed!

So the brain unconsciously spotted the logos, right? Or maybe the brain realised that it was only processing blocks of one particular colour but rather blocks each comprising of many colours. From then, the brain works more effectively and becomes more rapid when given other things to do.

Am I making any sense? Just a thought. How do we know that the brain actually distinguished the logos and not just blocks of colours?

This might have been even more revealing if they had quizzed people on their specific eating habits. Do the trends hold true for people who never eat fast food versus the rare but accepting fast-food consumer, versus people who eat it 1-2x a week, versus those who consume more than 3x a week?

@Ed: I was being a bit snarky -- but thanks for the cites.

It seems ol' Freud wasn't so wrong after all -- that conscious processing is to a large extent post-hoc rationalization, except in a very limited number of cases of planning with essentially unlimited time to ratiocinate.

The (well-known) implications, are, of course, staggering.

Some of this has to do with the effects of color. The particular shades of red and yellow, and their use together, were researched to magnify both desire for food and and impatience. The desired result being people order more but then quickly leave. Higher profits from larger orders and higher rate of turnover. The red/yellow theme is a popular color scheme for fast food joint.

The seats, and pretty much everything else, have been designed to be comfortable to sit in for a few minutes, presumably just long enough to inhale the meal, but to discourage loitering.

The manipulation of color, symbol, timing and presentation to induce approach, spending, and quick turnover has been made into its own field of study. These places are run by huge corporations that are willing to spend money to optimize the system because small benefits accrue rapidly across a large a system and continue to over time. Every detail has been researched and will continue to be researched.

The goal is programmed behavior where the average American walks in without any conscious choice, tosses their wallet to the guy behind the counter, thanks them for allowing him to experience the atmosphere, and walks out ten second later completely satisfied.

I wonder how much this translated into real-world effects - for instance, how much of our taste for disingenuous, sound-bite politics is due to this effect (and vice-versa?)

We still only have a correlation not a causal relationship. We'd need to compare fastfood logos with other symbols. Just because the subject is not consciously aware of the presence of logos, the brain might be realizing that some of the flashing images do carry meaning. The stress of not having time to parse the symbols could be the cause of the increased brain activity later. The brain may have been "put on notice" to go faster because it didn't have time to fully parse the symbols. That could be easily checked by having a group that see logos for brands associated with slowness (beer?) or not associated with speed at all. But the correlation between faster brain activity and fastfood logos is really interesting.

This study seems very weak in general because there are so many variables. Of course many sociological studies have this problem.

At least in my personal realm of influence, though, I do notice that fast food places make me feel impatient. How they waft the smell of french fries in the vicinity, and I KNOW there is delicious tasting food a few minutes away. Food that is designed to shut off the "I'm full" warning, makes me want even if I'm not hungry. So there is this anticipation for pleasure, and it makes me impatient.

I suppose its a reasonable hypothesis that the logo itself, is some Pavlovian fashion, could trigger impatience... but its gonna take a lot more than this to establish a convincing association imo.

I'm with Yvonne. The results seem to demonstrate nothing at all about fast food, or reactions to it, or to its logos, in particular. They should have had other familiar food logos not associated with fast prep and low quality, instead of blank colored blocks. Maybe what came through was haste, or maybe just associations with salt, sugar, and fat. Did participants think they would get out of the experiment sooner if they finished sooner?

It's easiest to design experiments that provide no new information.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

13, 14, 15: Huh? The testing of subliminal images didn't start and end with this. They have been shown to affect behaviour in numerous experiments and they are commonly used to detect the interaction between conscious and unconscious processing.

This result is somewhat different to a lot of the previous work in that it's demonstrating a transitive effect into other domains, not just food-seeking. (If the McDonald's logo just induced preferences for hamburgers the experiment wouldn't be demonstrating anything new.)

By Jim Birch (not verified) on 22 Mar 2010 #permalink

Fast = fast as embodied metaphor.

Seems to me that their control is a bit dodgy. It could be the effect of subconsciously recognising any brand logo, rather than fast food. Or just to do with the difference between blocks of colour and logos (i.e. patterns of colour). Better controls would be non-fast food brands and logos with no brand behind them (i.e. still a logo, but not a recognisable one).

I'd be interested to read the stats (when the embargo is over) as well. Doesn't seem to be a huge sample or a massive change in means.

All that aside, its still interesting.

Jim Birch: Fine, there's lots of work on effects of subliminal images. Probably some of it is good. The designers of this study do not appear to have learned anything from the other work, or thought much about it. They got results that vary vs. the controls, but the variance doesn't tell us anything specific.

There is a great deal of published "science" like that. It's one of the reasons scientists are so dismissive of new results they haven't studied carefully. By far the most likely explanation for any interesting result is that somebody did something wrong.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 23 Mar 2010 #permalink

A detail: the $3 immediately or the greater sum in a week. I myself, would choose the immediate sum in case I didn't trust the moneyprovider. Then to my conviction, the choise in fact would be: $3 immediately, or nothing.
How can you know if this experiment wasn't testing [dis]trustment more than or instead of [im]patience?

Ed, found a typo: its 'Fat food'.

(McDouble, extra pickle & onion, coffee, to go)