Friday, February 10, 2012

Why We Do What We Do

The previous parts of this article are here: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

Today, I saw an article on NPR titled "Why We Like What We Like." It cited some psychological research studies published in a book titled How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. In some of these studies it has been found that most people fail to differentiate between red wine and white wine if they are not allowed to see the wines physically. Similarly, people could not differentiate between $5 cheap wines and expensive $100 varieties if they they are not allowed to see the labels on the bottles. Even many wine experts fail on such blind tests. The article talked about many people having failed even on blind tests where they had to differentiate between a gourmet paté and dog food. Why do people fail on such tests? Are we all just snobs who cannot really differentiate between the food we brag about and cheaper varieties? The answer to these questions may vary based on whom you ask. I certainly don't have a clear answer. In some ways, such studies prove that expensive brands only serve ego needs. On the other hand, one could argue that isolation of senses (as is done in such blind tests) is not how things work in real life. Real life experiences are always multi-sensory; so, it matters to people whether their wine is vintage or whether their spouse is attractive. I won't go into that debate, because my purpose of citing the NPR article is that it reminded me of some other psychological studies that I had read a few months ago.

In the first study, researchers offered movie goers at a theater free popcorn in exchange for completing a few questionnaires. Unbeknownst to these movie goers, they were randomly offered popcorn that was either fresh or stale. The stale popcorn was really stale, because it had been prepared a week ago. Unsurprisingly, those who got the stale popcorn liked it much less than those who got the fresh popcorn. The researchers distinguished the participants of the study based on whether they had a strong or weak habit of eating popcorn at movies. People who generally did not consume popcorn at movies, ate good quantities of popcorn when it was fresh but not when it was stale. However, in an interesting twist, this was not true for the people who had strong popcorn habit. In other words, for the people who had the habit of buying and consuming popcorn during movies, it did not matter if the popcorn was fresh or stale. They consumed the same amount of popcorn irrespective of whether they had been provided with fresh or a week-old popcorn. Now if you have a researcher's bent of mind, you will ask, "What about hunger?" "Isn't it possible that the people who had the habit of eating popcorn at movies likely to be more hungry than the ones who did not have the habit?" Certainly, yes! It is surely possible that the habitual popcorn eaters would come hungry to the theater to be able to enjoy their popcorn while watching movies. However, our diligent researchers controlled for hunger in this study. They actually made all the participants rate their current hunger before they entered inside the theater. To me, this study demonstrates that even if we differentiate between fresh and stale food, the difference doesn't matter when we are in the clutch of mindless habits. Unfortunately, for many people, eating has become a mindless activity. Almost all of us have probably consumed meals while being glued to the television, at least once.

There was another interesting experiment in the same paper, and it provides greater insights into what people could do to change their habits. However, I'll talk about it tomorrow, and summarize the lessons that I think we can learn from these studies. Right now, it's time for me to get some rest, because, again, I'm very tired today. Driving for over three hours through snow after a long day at work can be pretty tiring. But I am not complaining, because it is a delight to be able to see my 4-legged girl friend. She is comfortably snoring next to me as I type up this post.

To be continued ...


  1. :( paresh kya tujhe achha lagta hai kutte ko girlfriend kehna!!! a] democratic country me koi flirt karne ke liye mana nahi kar raha hai tujhe ? b] tere liye kya ladkiyan mr gayi hai !! c] chahe to tu mujhse flirt kar isse jyada se jyada kya hoga tera mere sath me jhagda ho jayega magar tu kutte ko girlfriend smjhna chaloo mat kar.. d] apne pet ko tu SMITA ASAI pukarna chaloo kar de..........

    Ms. Asai

    1. Mark Twain said it best: "If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man." Needless to say, that is also the principal difference between a bitch and a bitch. :D