We are such creatures of habit that we'll mindlessly eat, even when the food is stale.
That's the conclusion of a study published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that tested whether our habits will control what we eat, even when the food doesn't taste very good.
In the study, people who habitually ate popcorn at the movies were found to eat equal amounts of popcorn, whether it was freshly popped or a week-old and stale-tasting, when offered free popcorn while watching movie trailers. Those who only occasionally ate popcorn at the movies ate less of the stale popcorn. Controlling for hunger didn't change the results.
To prove the power of habit over eating, the researchers tried the same test but had participants watch movie clips in a conference room, where people don't usually eat popcorn. In that environment, the actual taste of the popcorn mattered -- both habitual and non-habitual popcorn eaters ate less of the stale popcorn.
"People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn," said study co-author Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California in a news release. "But once we've formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good. We'll eat exactly the same amount, whether it's fresh or stale."
To help break us out of the mindless eating habits that sabotage our diets -- chips in front of the TV, for example -- Wood suggested doing something to actively disrupt the pattern. Eating with the opposite hand, perhaps, or eating something completely different.
And if you're at the movies, think about skipping that salty, expensive popcorn altogether.
Photo credit: Courtesy flixster.com