Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Burger With a Side of Sadness: fast-food negatively affects people's well-being and happiness

In our modern society, convenience and speed are key to consumers, and has remarkably influenced how we choose to spend our time.  We see time as linear and nonrecoverable, and therefore as a valuable resource, and so the less time we spend on a product, service, or activity, the better we feel about it.  But is it our impatience that has made these qualities so prevalent, or has the availability of technology, fast food, and time-efficient consumer products made us crave them more?

A recent open access study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, tackled this question.  The researchers, out of the University of Toronto, studied the effect of fast food on people's patience and happiness.  Fast food is everywhere in Western culture, and increasingly in developing countries and their cultures, as a means of quickly filling our bellies and moving on.  In this statement though, I think the authors ignore the convenience of price and time-efficiency for individuals with lower socioeconomic status, and just look at fast food and society as a whole.  

It turns out though, the the more we are exposed to time-saving technologies, the more impatient we become, and the more we want them.  This is also true when exposed to logos of time-saving technologies.  For example, individuals exposed to fast-food logos exhibited faster reading speeds than those who were not, even though they were not under any time constraint.  The authors of this study, led by Julian House, took these findings one step further by measuring how this increased impatience can undermine people's happiness and enjoyment.

They completed three studies, the first involved looking at the presence of various fast-food restaurants (or exposure to fast-food logos) in different neighborhoods, and the savoring of pleasant experiences among people in those neighborhoods.  The second study examined fast-food packaging - or a person's ability to take the food elsewhere vs. having to eat in the restaurant - interfered with enjoyment of photos of a natural scenery.  The third study looked at perceived passage of time after exposure to fast-food - the researchers primed some participants with fast-food, then showed them a video clip of an opera.  

What they found was that people exposed to more fast-food logos were less likely to savor pleasant experiences.  The second study found that individuals exposed to fast-food rated themselves as less happy than the control group.  That means that fast-food in this case did not make people unhappier, but it made them less likely to savor a pleasant experience.  Finally the third study found that people who had been primed with a fast-food meal were more likely to find that the video was very long, and to feel more impatient.  

A reduction in a person's ability to enjoy pleasant experiences, to "stop and smell the roses", affects their well-being and overall happiness.  Although the authors found that fast-food consumption itself did not make people unhappy, it made them less patient, undermined their ability to enjoy a pleasant experience.  That means that, ultimately, eating fast-food has a negative effect on people's well-being and experienced happiness, on top of the well-known effect on people's health.  It also means that the more we are exposed to time-saving technologies like fast-food, the more likely we are to be impatient and to crave them more.  These findings may be useful in creating policies to minimize the exposure of people to fast-food (including vending machines) in schools and in the workplace, as they have strong psychological impacts.


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