Posts Tagged ‘Food’

It’s been a long day, and you’ve stopped by the grocery store to buy some pick-me-up mint chocolate chip ice cream. You navigate efficiently through the store, find your target, and analyze the lines for the quickest exit. Picking the line with the fewest people, you patiently wait to check out. The line is moving slowly. You peruse the tabloids while you wait; there’s apparently been some sort of tussle between the cast members of The Jersey Shore. Your eyes begin to wander. You notice that there are now several types of Twix bars, one with, mmm, peanut butter. You look longingly at the ice cream, melting on the conveyor belt. How much time does the person in front of you need to buy 23 items? The lines around you are moving at a brisk pace, the customers leaving happily with their groceries. It isn’t fair; you’ve been waiting here for–oh. Four minutes.

To many people, waiting in line can seem interminable. Researchers have come up with some theories as to why waiting in lines is source of common frustration, including our inability to handle uncertainty and the need to occupy our time.

The uncertainty of how long we will be waiting begins the frustration of the grocery queue. One of the reasons waiting in line can seem longer than it should be is because it’s impossible to predict how much time you’ll be standing there; people are more patient if they are told a specific wait time than if they are left to guess how long a wait will take. Unfortunately, deciding how fast the line will move depends on a few unpredictable factors. There’s the number of people, sure, but you also need to calculate how many items are on the conveyor belt and how many items are hidden in carts, how fast the cashier is at scanning items, how many coupons the customer in front of you will want to use, and how much small talk the people in front of you will make before checking out. And that’s assuming all the prices are accurately marked.

Another reason waiting in line can feel like  a struggle is because people have a natural tendency to occupy their time. While you’re waiting in line, there is only a finite number of ways you can entertain yourself; reading the headlines on the tabloid magazines and finding a new recipe for cooking ribs will only occupy you for so long. Grocery stores take advantage of this phenomenon by putting impulse buys by the register; they know that you’ll be tempted to add new items to your cart if it feels like you’re doing something with your time.

Finally, the process of checking out at the grocery store often violates our perception of fairness. Grocery stores usually have multiple queues, with some moving faster than others. Since each line will operate at a different pace than the others, it almost feels that the lines moving faster than the one you chose are cheating. You know in your mind that the cashier had to call the manager to find out how to process an item, but a part of you still feels that the people who joined another line after you started in yours shouldn’t get to leave before your shopping is finished.

Maybe this means we should be more like the person laughing at the tabloid headphones while griping into their cellphone about how slow the line is moving; apparently, they’ve got it all figured out. Do you ever feel frustrated when you’re waiting in line?


Buying a nice, warm latte is part of many people’s morning routines. In the United States alone, there are over 11,000 Starbucks. Over half the people in the U.S. drink coffee every day. A tall latte costs $3.25, a number that doesn’t seem too threatening until you do the math. $3.25 per coffee means $22.75 per week. $22.75 per week means $91 per month. $91 per month means $1092 per year spent at Starbucks. And that’s without any syrup.

Photo credit
I’ve probably given this woman the down payment on a car.

Why doesn’t 3.25 per cup seem like that much money when we’re standing in line in the morning? There are a few tricks managers can pull out of their green aprons to make that number seem like small change. Some stores, including Starbucks, drop the dollar sign from their list of costs. Customers tend to “follow the path of least resistance” when it comes to their purchasing choices; subtle changes like leaving the dollar sign out and marking the price in a smaller font encourage buyers to focus on the product and not the price. It also helps to have prices that end in “9” or “5,” because people usually read prices from left to right, processing a $3.95 order as $3 instead of $4.

But, let’s face it, spending too much money on coffee is not an obscure problem. Even if they’ve never done the exact calculations of the amount leaving their bank account, most people realize that their coffee habit is costing a significant amount of money over time, and still don’t change their ways. The reason can’t be convenience–it takes more time to wait in line at a coffee shop than it does to wait for a pot to brew at home.

It comes down to our ability to weigh immediate gratification against future reward. The choice between immediate and delayed gratification is a war between emotion and logic. The emotional part of the brain, the ventral striatum, thinks about how tasty a vanilla latte would be, while the logical part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, remembers how much the electric bill is this month. Deciding to delay gratification and pay the electric bill comes from the ability to project ourselves into the future–a skill that comes more easily to some people than others.

In the famous “marshmallow experiment,” researchers at Stanford University offered children a single marshmallow, a good hour in any child’s life. However, if they waited for just a few minutes, the researchers told them that they would receive two marshmallows. They left the marshmallow on the table in front of the children while they left the room. After the experiment, they followed the children throughout their school years, and found that the children who were able to resist eating the first marshmallow had better academic success and were less likely to become addicted to drugs than those who chose the immediate reward.

Although that information may be discouraging to people who spend $5 on coffee every day, there is hope. Our ability to delay gratification isn’t set in stone; many of the kids who ate the first marshmallow had learned to focus on future rewards by the time they were adults. With some practice and willpower, we can break our coffee habits and save money for our future needs.

I won’t count the trip I took to Starbucks this morning in the battle to break the latte habit–that was for research. Do you have any immediate gratification habits that you want to break?

Choosing a good wine for a dinner party can be a complicated decision. There are the simple questions, the color (red, white, or blush) that your guests will enjoy and the type of wine (a nice Pinot Noir or Chardonnay) they would prefer. Then there’s information about the vintage and origin of each particular bottle that you consider. Then you need to know if you should chill it beforehand, and exactly how long you should let it breathe before serving it. Or, if that all sounds like too much work, you can always scratch the search and concentrate on your background music.

Our perception is influenced by multiple senses. In the matter of wine, one study has suggested that our perception of flavor can be influenced by the music we listen to as we drink. Researchers asked participants to sample wine while listening to different styles of music, including Tchaikovsky, Orff, and Nouvelle Vague. The songs they played had already been rated on their characteristics by a separate group of participants, who judged the music on scales of “powerful and heavy,” “subtle and refined,” and “zingy and refreshing.” Those who sampled the wine while listening to Tchaikovsky were more likely to judge the wine they were drinking as “subtle and refined,” while those who were listening to Orff and Nouvelle Vague were likely to judge their samples of wine as “powerful and heavy” and “zingy and refreshing.”

After reading about studies like this one, you have to ask the obvious question–what would wine taste like when paired with The Chemical Brothers?

We live in a world of choices. We decide whether to wake up, hit the snooze alarm, or fall back to sleep. We choose where to live, which college to attend, and in what field to begin our career. We decide who to marry, what to bring for lunch, and which gym membership offers the best deal on group classes. The decisions are endless, and the average person makes around 1,000 of them a day.

A quick trip to the grocery store reveals over forty brands of cereal, six types of red apples, and nine varieties of popcorn. By law, food products must provide information about their contents, the pros and cons of each serving, so that we can decide whether it’s more worthwhile to enjoy a packet of Butterscotch Krimpets or to satisfy our hunger with a helping of healthy trail mix.

The right decision.

But having the information at hand doesn’t mean that we’ll make informed decisions about the food we bring home, a reality explained in part by Decision Fatigue. Simply put, our brains have a limited amount of energy to devote to making decisions. After choice after choice after choice, the energy source is depleted. After a hectic day, we don’t have the energy or determination to decide if there is any meaningful difference between MacIntosh and Red Delicious.

Above: Two different products.

Decision Fatigue is particularly noticeable in choices requiring will-power and self-control. In one experiment, participants were given the option of eating chocolate chip cookies. Those people who successfully resisted eating the cookies were then more likely to give in later to the other temptations that researchers laid out for them. Making the decision to stick to your diet during the day means having less energy to devote to choosing healthy snacks at night.

The good news is that it’s possible to lessen the effects of decision fatigue by taking precautions against it. If you’re dieting, you might avoid temptation by planning meals in advance, carrying healthy snacks, and reworking your schedule to bypass your pet indulgences. If you’re just trying to eat healthy, it may help to make your shopping decisions early in the morning, before your energy pool is tapped out.

And if you’re craving something sweet, it may be safer to indulge in something small—otherwise, you may find yourself writing a blog about resisting temptation while eating three cups of lemon water ice. Whoever that may apply to.

Why We Overtip

Posted: May 14, 2012 in Daily Life
Tags: , , , , , ,

The old saying goes that it is better to give than to receive, and no one needs that statement to be true more than waiters. Although the average tip falls somewhere between 15% and 20%, it certainly helps to have customers who want to spend those extra few dollars resting in their pockets. For years, studies have provided a variety of methods that servers can use to increase their tips, such as giving their customers candy, drawing pictures or smiley faces on the check, and even predicting good weather.

Today’s specials include chicken piccata and psychological warfare.

Though these tricks of the trade haven proven effective, many customers know how much they’re going to tip before they even enter a restaurant. So why do some people habitually tip 25% percent or more whenever they go to a restaurant, regardless of whether or not they enjoyed the service?

It could be that they are enjoying the physiological benefits of tipping as an act of altruism. The pleasure center, whose routine customers include orgasm and fatty foods, also has another frequent guest—generosity. When someone engages in an act of altruism, the reward center, located in the nucleus accumbens in the limbic system of the brain, becomes activated. The truly altruistic gesture releases endorphins and dopamine, letting our minds know that we participated in an act worth pursuing again.

The feeling that is derived from generosity reinforces the behavior so that the person will want to continue to experience that pleasure. And, if altruism follows the same guidelines as the other, less positive frequenters of the reward center, such as alcohol and sugar, then customers would need to give more as time goes on to trigger the same level of pleasure that was released during the first act.

That’s good news for anyone who makes their money from tips.

Lauren Volpone