Looks don’t matter! The case of popcorn and more…

Too much Popcorn?


To give a short answer to that question if looks matter:


If that does not satisfy you, read on, I will delve deeper into why appearance (looks) do matter. For the record, I am talking here about product ‘looks’ although much of what is said could also be applied to the way we ourselves and other people look. But no  need to cramp it all into one single post.


And there is nothing we can do about it?

A bold statement but it is true. A few striking examples are:

  • We tend to eat more popcorn if we’re given a bigger amount of it. In fact, this is true regardless if the popcorn is nice or of bad quality. The thing is, we like to think that we only over-eat because we actually enjoy the things we eat, but in fact, we over-eat because we simply get more. Is it that simple? In a study by Wansink and Kim (2005) it was. They provided Philidelphian moviegoers with medium or large sized containers of free popcorn, half of them were stale, the other half was crispy fresh. The first finding was that people actually eat more popcorn if they get larger containers. This is already rather remarkable, why would we eat more simply because there is more? But it is in human nature to use the resources we have avilable, so OK. What is more remarkable, however, is that, regardless of taste, we eat more. Those with crispy popcorn ate 45 % more popcorn when given large containers, but those who ate stale popcorn also ate more popcorn (33 %) given large containers. The conclusion: we do not eat more because we like it, but because we have more of it available.

Sidenote: as Wansink and kim suggest, we can ‘use’ this trick as well to benefit society, simply by increasing the portion sizes of healthful food, like snack carrots.

  • On the same topic, Wansink (and Ittersum, 2013) did another study on plate sizes. They found that the size of plates is a visual ‘cue’ for us humans from which we conclude how much food we’re supposed to take. For instance, in a Chinese buffet restaurant, larger plates amounted to people serving themselves 52 % more food, eating 45 % more and wasting 135 % more food in total compared to using smaller plates. A similar study was done by Kallbekken & Saelen in hotel restaurants. They found a staggering drop of 20 % of food waste just by reducing plate size and the social cues accompanying the filling of plates (they basically encouraged people to take less in single goes, but come back more often, thus making the portions people take more suited for their eventual consumption).

Sidenote: these examples show excellently how nudges (like small changes in plate sizes) can benefit all actors in the game. People eat less, which is generally in their health benefit, restaurant owners have to spend less money on food that is simply being wasted anyway, and the environment benefits as well because less waste is in general a relief for all involved ecosystems (nowadays the global landscape).

  • A third striking example is that of detergents. Not so much detergents themselves, but their packaging, to be clear. The package matters in terms of quality of detergents. No matter what detergent is really in the package… People were given detergents in either all blue, all yellow, or blue & yellow packages and consequently asked about the quality of said detergents. Subjects were pretty much convinced that the blue & yellow packaged detergent was by far the best one (of course it wasn’t, it was exactly the same detergent as in the other packages). What’s more, people named all sorts of reasons for this detergent being better, anything but that they liked the package more. In fact, they liked it more because of the package, but no one really consciously knew this.

Sidenote: This study was done some while ago (Packard, 1957) but the importance of packaging and colours has been proven time and time again. In fact, I bet that subconsciously you are ‘aware’ that light products are very often packaged in light blue tints, and packaging often takes colour ‘inspiration’ from the product it contains. Butter packages are often golden, as the butter itself (or so an ideal butter would be). What does the package colour contribute to the product? Nothing! Yet it still makes us more prone to buy a golden package than a black one, when we are buying butter. When we’re buying Heinz tomato ketchup, we will look for red (unless we want the one with reduced calories!). This is not really a conscious effort, although it is not hidden either, once could possibly think about this if one wanted to. Hence, this ‘nudge’ of the physical environment does not force anyone to go for a certain gold-coloured package, it simply nudges us. It signals to us “this package contains an equally golden product”.

The point made with these illustrations (and many others not mentioned here) is that looks matter. Not only that, looks are always there, and so there really is not at all a ‘questionable debate’ about whether we should or shouldn’t nudge. Unless we plan to sell butter and detergents without package all together, that is, we will always need a package and so a ‘choice architecture’. The question remains only, ‘how’ should we use packaging. To the benefit of only the seller, or also to the benefit of the consumer and the environment?




“Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste, “ Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2005, 37:5 (Sept-Oct), 242-5, Brian Wansink and Junyong Kim.

“Portion Size Me: Downsizing Our Consumption Norms,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2007, 107:7 (July), 1103-1106, Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum.

“Nudging’ hotel guests to reduce food waste as a win-win environmental measure”. Economics Letters,2 2013, 119 (3): pp. 325-327.Kallbekken, Steffen and Håkon Sælen, 2013.

“The hidden persuaders”, Vance Packard, as read in “Subliminal” by  Leonard Mlodinow (p. 23) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012


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