Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
Do you find yourself devouring chips, cookies, and other unhealthy snacks without even thinking about it? Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., offers an unusual tip to curb your habit.
Snacking Starts with Your Kitchen
Would you like to maintain better control over your eating habits and reduce your snacking? Clean your kitchen, and keep it clean.
Brian Wansink and his research team conducted a study in which participants were asked to accomplish a simple writing task. The study took place in a kitchen environment.
Snacks were provided while they completed the study—a plate of cookies was placed nearby. Researchers told participants they could have as many of those cookies as they wanted.
For half of the participants, the researchers cleaned the kitchen before they arrived. Dishes were all washed and put away; trash was in the can out of sight; all other food in the kitchen was put away into the cabinets—this was a clean and orderly kitchen.
For the other half of the participants, the kitchen was not clean and orderly. The experimenters described it as a chaotic kitchen condition.
The tables and chairs were placed in haphazard positions all around the room. Papers were sloppily arranged in piles in various places around the kitchen. The experimenter even intentionally arrived late and scrambled around to get organized as the study began.
The participants in the chaotic condition ate more cookies. They consumed about 53 more calories. This isn’t all that much, but the study only lasted 10 minutes.
If the study had continued for just one hour at this rate, we’d be looking at over 300 calories of extra snacking. A pound of fat consists of about 3,500 calories of stored energy. By extrapolating, we can estimate that an extra pound of fat would be gained for every 12 hours spent in the chaotic condition.
How Chaos Drives Unconscious Eating
This study indicates that our eating behaviors are, at least in part, influenced by the cleanliness and orderliness of our kitchen. While our unconscious decision-making systems are outside of our awareness, they dictate what we do, especially if our conscious mind is preoccupied with something else.
When we’re in the kitchen, we’re often doing non-food-related tasks including paying bills, talking with our kids, or reading the newspaper. Our conscious mind is no longer focused on our eating habits.
Then we begin eating on autopilot, which leads to mindless snacking. This is why it’s easy to eat an entire bag of chips while watching your favorite TV show.
Wansink and his colleagues interpreted their findings in terms of the stress induced by a cluttered environment. In addition to the chaotic versus clean kitchen variable, they also manipulated the stress levels of the participants.
As explained, all of the participants worked on a simple writing task while they were in the kitchen. One third of them were asked to write about some time in their lives in which they felt particularly chaotic and out of control.
Another third of the participants were asked to write about a time when they felt particularly organized and in control. The remaining participants were asked to write about the last lecture that they attended—a neutral control condition.
Being out of control is an unpleasant experience. If you ask someone to think about a time when they felt out of control, their stress levels tend to rise.
Conversely, by asking people to recall times when they’ve been in control, their mood will typically be rendered more calm. For the group who wrote about their most recent lecture, their mood wasn’t expected to shift up or down very much.
Inner Peace and Self-Control
This mood induction technique worked. People who wrote about the chaotic, out-of-control memories tended to snack most; people in the neutral condition snacked somewhat less; people in the calm mood induction snacked least of all. The most interesting aspect of the study, however, was the interaction between these two types of variables.
The participants who were in the stress-inducing condition were affected substantially more by the chaotic kitchen than were participants in the calm condition. Therefore, if you want to reduce your unhealthy snacking behaviors, clean your kitchen.
This is especially true if you are feeling stressed about things in your life. The combination of feeling stressed and having a messy kitchen seems very likely to induce your unconscious decision-making processes to indulge in unhealthy snacking. By cleaning your kitchen, you can reign in that fiendishly hungry process in your brain.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.