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Fast Food Culture: Is It Speeding Up Our Minds?

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Fast food is unhealthy.

I know, I know. Few of us need convincing of that fact any more. But as unassailable as it is, the brief against fast food has for years focused almost entirely on the food in fast food--the high fructose corn syrup and artery-busting fats and nutritional bankruptcy of burgers and French fries and soft drinks. But what about the fast in fast food?

New science is now suggesting that fast food may be doubly unhealthy--not only nutritionally damaging but psychologically detrimental as well. Indeed, the Colonel and the Golden Arches and the rest of America's fast-food culture may be unconsciously triggering a general impatience with life that leads to wrongheaded decisions going way beyond food. In short, fast food may lead to fast and frenzied life-for-today lifestyles that may be just as unhealthy as bad cholesterol.

At least that's the theory, which psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe of the University of Toronto have been exploring using an idea called behavioral priming. This is just a jargony way of saying that cues in our everyday world subliminally spark ideas, which in turn shape our behavior. The Toronto scientists wondered if symbols of our ubiquitous fast-food culture might spark thoughts of time pressures and efficiency--and cause us to act urgently and impatiently.

Here's an example of how they tested this notion in the laboratory. They recruited a large group of volunteers to perform a computer task. The task involved an image at the center of the screen, but other images also flashed very rapidly on the periphery of the screen--so rapidly that the conscious mind could not possibly notice them. Some of the volunteers "saw" familiar fast-food logos--KFC, Taco Bell, McDonald's, and so forth--while others simply saw neutral images.

After this priming, all the volunteers were told to read a short descriptive prose passage. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers were timing them--in order to see if the unconscious thoughts of fast food caused them to read faster. And they did. Even though they were told to take as much time as they liked, those thinking of fast food read much faster than the controls--and faster than they did without any unconscious priming. In other words, the Golden Arches and similar symbols made they feel time pressure where there was none.

Now let's be clear. Sometimes urgency and deadlines are appropriate and needed. We read quickly when we are taking a timed exam, for example, just as we walk quickly when we need to be somewhere soon. So speed is not in itself bad. But this was like speed-reading Emily Dickinson; it doesn't make any sense. And in fact it's unhealthy: One measure of Type A personality is speed and impatience in leisure activities like eating and walking and reading.

These findings were intriguing, but the psychologists wanted to reexamine the question a different way. So in a second experiment, they again used fast food imagery to prime volunteers' unconscious thoughts of time and urgency. But this time they rated the desirability of common household products, only some of which were time-saving products. For example, the volunteers might choose a four-slice toaster or a single-slice toaster; a two-in-one shampoo or a regular shampoo. And so forth. The idea was to see if those primed with fast food imagery were more likely to pick an efficient product than were the others. And that's exactly what they found: Memories of Big Macs sparked a generalized impatience which in turn increased desire to complete household tasks as quickly as possible.

I don't know about you, but I find this alarming. And it gets worse. In a final experiment, the scientists went far afield, testing whether our fast-food culture might actually determine whether or not we save for the future. As they explain it, saving requires delaying gratification, denying one's needs today for a bigger payoff later on. Failure to save is impatience writ large -- over the lifespan. Like the ethos of fast food, lack of financial planning is all about immediate gratification.

And the experiment's findings were unambiguous. As reported on-line last week in the journal Psychological Science, the volunteers primed with fast-food logos were much more likely to accept a smaller amount of money now rather than wait for a larger payment in a week. In short, mere exposure to fast food symbols made people impatient in a way that could threaten their future economic security.

It's hard not to savor the irony in these findings. Fast food was invented to save us time--to get us away from the drudgery of the kitchen so we could enjoy more leisure time. But today, the mere idea of fast food automatically triggers our unconscious sense of haste and urgency and pressure--feelings that shape not only the way we eat, but nearly every aspect of the way we live our lives, including our leisure.

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