I remember reading a review of About Schmidt in which the critic cited a scene at a Dairy Queen as the key to the title character. In the scene Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, orders a Blizzard; when asked which size, he wavers, before settling on a relatively modest "medium." What this reveals, the critic wrote, is an essentially circumscribed life; even when indulging (ordering a Blizzard), his vision is modest (just the medium, please).

In a similar vein, Jonah Lehrer discusses a new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research in which professors David Dubois, Derek Ruckner and Adam Galinsky argue that ordering the bigger size is a way to signal your status--like, "I have so much money I can get as many french fries as I want." They ran a couple of experiments and found that, for example, the study subjects would perceive a person with a big cup of coffee as being more prestigious than a person with a small cup. The effect held for pizzas and smoothies.

In another experiment, the professors asked people to think about an experience where they had felt powerless and then asked them to pick a size of smoothie or bagel. The subjects who felt powerless chose big smoothies and bagels. The study subjects who were asked to think about an experience where they felt powerful, however, chose a smaller snack and ate fewer calories as a result. Lehrer picks up their logic:

This isn’t such a strange conjecture. Think, for instance, of the alpha males in those David Attenborough specials on television – the most powerful animal is the one who eats the most, getting access to the felled antelope before anyone else. Or think of all the cultural norms that associate larger products with increased status, from the screen size of televisions to the square footage of houses. In category after category, bigger isn’t just better – it’s also far more prestigious, a signal that we can afford to splurge on spare rooms we’ll never use.

That may be true with houses, but it seems illogical with regard to food, particularly the foods offered in these experiments. The psychologists seem to be describing an unconscious tendency--the subjects who have recently been reminded of their weakness are trying to make up for it--but when someone has a flashy car, or a huge house, the signaling effect is more straightforward. People with huge houses typically have more money than people with modest ones, Warren Buffett aside. With food, it's often the opposite. A more intuitive explanation of the phenomenon Galinsky et al describe, I think, would be that the people who are reminded about a time when they felt powerless are therefore feeling sad or self-indulgent or trying to comfort themselves with food (the kummerspeck the Germans talk about.)

Being impressed by the size of someone's coffee, however: puzzling.

Incidentally, I was briefly a subject in one of those experiments often discussed with regard to obesity--the ones where people will eat as long as there's food in their nosebag. I was in college and it was advertised in my dorm: the hospital next door was looking for students to come eat breakfast and lunch on site every day for about two weeks. As a poor student I thought this was a good idea: free breakfast and lunch! I went in on Monday morning and drank a smoothie that was bolted to the table. A few hours later, via email, I was politely sacked from the experiment for not eating correctly. I think I was eating too slowly. It hurt my feelings mildly. In retrospect, it makes me slightly suspicious of such studies. They were presumably refilling the smoothie from below the table. But as a subject, I wouldn't have suspected that I was eating a stunt smoothie, and the food as presented--a glass of a fruit-and-yogurt based concoction--is hardly an unhealthy breakfast for a teenager. I don't remember if I drank the entire glass, but it would have been logical to try.

11/09/2011 08:20

John Lehrer did not interpret Attenborough correctly. I'll give Attenborough any benefit of a doubt. The power of the animal is not demonstrated by how much it eats, but by how much it kills. Obviously it has first go, although it may have to defend his or her booty. However, the accumulation and display of power comes from quality nutrition, no matter how it is obtained.

11/09/2011 19:22

No one mentions appetite? Is it taken for granted that eating is a pleasure that never ends? Maybe taking the medium blizzard is just a way of eating for as long as the pleasure lasts, not more.

11/10/2011 19:38

I ha two business lunches today and finished my plate both times. A high-status glutton, yessiree.


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