Don’t let your sticky fingers lead you astray.
The snack bar has us fooled into believing that smaller bites and shared bowls mean fewer calories, according to new psychological research.
The findings suggest that “free food” may be a danger to those on a diet.
The new study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, revealed how individuals tend perceive dishes that are shared between friends to be less fattening, compared to those eating the same food from separate containers.
After observing the group-dining habits and perceptions of 719 snackers, researchers now believe a feeling of a “lack of ownership” may cause our brains to overlook some calories during the underlying “mental accounting” process of our diets.
“When we see food on a shared plate, we still understand how many calories we are consuming, but we do not think that those calories will impact our waistline,” said Nükhet Taylor, a business psychology researcher based in Canada.
For example, snackers considered a bowl of potato chips less fattening by a margin of 15% so long as they were sharing the bowl with another. But when their servings were split between two platters, the perceived fat content of these snacks shot up.
The same effect was seen when they replaced chips for plain M&Ms, thought to be 20% less fattening when shared, per the experiment.
And the trend held consistent even when junk food was swapped for healthy snacks — almonds, in this case. The nuts were considered 22% less fattening when eaten with a friend from the same bowl.
Taylor and co-author Theodore Noseworthy spoke to the Times UK to discuss the psychology behind the phenomenon, in which hors d’oeuvres diners seem to “mentally decouple calories from their consequences.”
“Because the shared plate does not belong to us … we believe that whatever we eat from that plate will not be of consequence to our weight,” Taylor explained.
To illustrate, one of their experiments asked participants to imagine sharing a box of Chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s with a friend, then choose a dessert to follow — either apple slices or an ice cream sundae.
Those told they were mooching on a friend’s McNuggets were 13% more likely to choose the sugary dessert than those who consumed their own purchased meal.
Their findings “suggested that sharing was reducing perceived ownership, and this was lowering fattening judgments for both healthy and unhealthy food items,” the researchers wrote.
They added, “It seems that sharing is causing a general bias.”