For many, the words “scientific research” conjure up images of tests tubes, clipboards and white lab coats. But for others, like Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, scientific research can be much more relevant, dynamic and even fun.
Wansink has just been recognized for his research by the Annals of Improbable Research, who awarded him the Ig Nobel Prize. The Ig Nobel is granted to those researchers who are involved in work that is quirky and fun, but also scientifically sound. Other 2007 winners included a “gay bomb” that causes enemy soldiers to become irresistible to each other, and a trap for bank robbers that is designed to drop a net on top of them.
“[It’s] given for research that makes you laugh and then makes you think,” said Wansink. “They give 10 prizes every year that roughly align with the 10 areas that give Nobel prizes … I got it in this particular case because the research question was important but the way in which we answered it was fun and it was also academically tight enough to get into a great journal.”
The research that won Wansink the prize in this case was his work with “mindless eating,” specifically his experiments with endlessly refilling soup bowls. According to Wansink, the experiment ran three or four times, with typically about 60 people each time. The subjects were asked to eat as much as they wanted from a bowl of tomato soup for 15 minutes. What they did not know, however, was that Wansink and his research team had drilled holes into the bottom of the tables and had soup being continuously pressure fed into the bowls as the subjects ate, so their bowls would never empty.
The experiment was designed to determine if the subjects were more inclined to judge if they were full by looking at how much was left in their bowls rather than concentrating on if they really wanted more. In other words, Wansink and his team wanted to know if the subjects were simply “mindlessly eating”.
“Everyone will eat more from the refilling bowls,” Wansink said. “On average they ate about 16 ounces from the bottomless bowl and about nine ounces from the regular bowl.”
While Wansink and his team claim they were not surprised by the results, many of the subjects were.
“They never believe that they’ve actually eaten twice as much or almost twice as much, because they believe that they have that control,” said Jennifer Cole grad, one of Wansink’s research assistants.
Wansink has been working on “mindless eating” research for about 22 years, and says he was inspired to begin this type of work as a child.
“I grew up in Iowa,” he said, “where pretty much everything revolves around food production. As a little boy I used to sell vegetables from door to door.”
According to Wansink, this experience got him interested in how food should be marketed and what influences people to buy or eat more of a certain thing. The research he is involved in now is mostly in restaurants, figuring out how things like their layout and lighting influence how and what people eat. He also teaches and is working with undergraduate students like Jason Davis ’09 on a variety of different projects and labs.
“How the lab is set up is there are about eight members or so and each of us is assigned to a different study … We get a hands-on experience with [Wansink] and we get to see a different aspect of research.” Davis said. “I’m working with all-you-can-eat pizza.”
Davis says that the projects that he and his peers are involved in are both fun and worthwhile, just like Wansink himself.
“This type of research is very psychologically based. It’s really cool. All very hands on … and we also like to help the companies we work with to market their business better by giving feedback,” he said. “And Brian’s a very fun guy to be around. He’s an academic, but he’s also a comedian.”
However, this research is not just for fun. Cole claims that many of the subjects who have read Wansink’s book Mindless Eating, or participated in these experiments, have changed how they eat as a result.
“Many Mindless Eating readers write in to tell us their results once they’ve switched to smaller plates and silverware or made other small behavior changes … [and] nearly every testimony shares a loss of 5 pounds or more,” she said. “Knowing that the research is actually reaching people and the surprising repetitive phrase ‘It really is mindless’ from these testimonies gives us reason to continue because we know we’re on to something that relates to the masses.”
Wansink says that it is especially important for college students to be aware of how they eat.
“In some ways college students are still trying to find their own eating rhythm in life,” he said. “They go from an environment where things are controlled for them at home to somewhere where they can eat 24 hours a day if they want to. It’s important for them to develop a pattern.”