We live with an illusion of control when it comes to our eating habits, because we have no idea how subtle environmental cues change how we behave.

Perceived Value

Changing the name of a dessert from “Chocolate cake” to “Belgian Black Forest Cake” increased its sale by 27 percent.

Swapping out the label on a cheap, $2 bottle of Cabernet and replacing it with a fake one from California made people rate the wine, the restaurant, and the food served as better than when it was replaced with a fake label from North Dakota.

Presenting a brownie on a very nice piece of china instead of a paper napkin makes you rate it as better tasting, and triples how much you’re willing to pay for it.

But these are all presentation gimmicks. These things might influence you a bit but as long as you pay attention to your feelings of satiety, you’ll be fine. Right?



What happens if your plate never empties? Do you rely on an external cue (how much soup is left in the bowl) or do you rely on an internal cue (how full you feel) to dictate how much you eat?

Subjects who ate soup out of a bowl that refilled without their knowledge ate 73 percent more soup when compared to the control group who ate out of regular bowls. This even applies to plate size. If your plate is bigger, you’ll eat more than if your plate is smaller.

Inevitably, when faced with psychology research of some type or another, the common refrain is, “Whatever, that wouldn’t work on me now that I know about it.”

Sorry, still wrong.

Knowing about the cue doesn’t change its impact.

Students who went through a 90 minute lecture explaining that a larger bowl would make them eat more, then having a study group laying out steps to avoid it, STILL ate 53 percent more when presented with the larger bowl 6 weeks later.

“Healthy” foods aren’t immune to external cues either.

Think that eating “low-fat” or “low-calorie” is a safer option?

You’ll eat more of it, even if you think it tastes worse.

The impact of exercise

Interestingly enough, when it comes to the influence of exercise on the amount we eat, the results are mixed. When subjects were primed to think about exercise, they ate less than people who weren’t primed, even though they didn’t do any.

Conversely, when two groups were taken out for a walk and one group was told it was for exercise and the other was told it was just scenic, the exercise group ended up eating more dessert at dinner afterwards.

Why it matters

It’s important to recognize that our choices are more heavily influenced by external cues then we think. However, that isn’t a reason to assume that we don’t have control over our habits.

The “trick” to changing our behavior isn’t to uncover external cues. Even if we do, we’ll still fall victim to them.

The solution is to leverage external cues to our benefit.

Applying it

Set portion size before eating. Breakfast is 4 eggs. Post training is the previously prepared tupperware. Dinner is 2 steak packs and a sweet potato. Set it up and stick to it.

Facilitate good choices. Keep healthy food options in plain view and you’ll be more likely to choose them. Don’t stock up on items that are easy to gorge on, like cookies.

Think about your Fran Time: Remember that what you eat is going to affect your performance.


How external cues make us overeat. Interview with Brian Wansink Here