An excerpt from

Brian Wansink is no new-age diet doctor. He’s the Director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, where a funhouse of one-way mirrors helps him spy into the hidden psychology behind Americans’ prodigious food intake.

Here’s a test you can do at home. Take two glasses. Make sure one is stubby, the other tall and skinny. Now pour the same amount of beer in each glass. Chances are you just poured 34 percent more into the short glass. Didn’t think you would? He knew you’d say that too. Wansink is in your head.

We reached him over the phone in Ithaca to discuss connections between the size of your plates and those saber-tooth tigers that evolutionary psychologists love.

Wired News: Tell me about this so-called Food and Brand Lab? How is it laboratorial?
Brian Wansink:
People typically think of wet labs where there are beakers and crazy scientists with Einstein hair. But the essential thing labs try to determine is causality: if you do something to this hamster, will it respond in this way or that way? We’re not studying proteins in rodents. We’re studying people using the same scientific method.

The physical space itself has one-way mirrors connected with kitchens that connect into different rooms that I can make look like a den or dining room.

WN: Do you see yourself as a scientist? A freakonomicist? A sociologist?
In some cases, if you fall solidly between a bunch of fields, that’s something that you just deal with. Any one of those fields will embrace the articles that you publish within that field, but not the others. That’s the blessing and the curse of being between those fields.

WN: Do you see yourself as part of the food industry or as an outside critic?
We don’t take any funding from the food industry but also we don’t criticize the food industry either. We believe most of the things that trick people into overeating are often the result of how we set up our own environments. We end up much more guilty of booby-trapping our lives than any company could be.

WN: What are some examples of “booby-trapping”?
Take the simple idea of serving bowl. If people leave a serving bowl on their table, even if it’s something they don’t like, they end up eating 30 percent more than if they move the serving bowl 6 feet away by the stove. Or plate size. People end up serving themselves 25 percent more on a 12 inch plate than on a 10 inch plate. But if you ask them about it, they’ll deny that.

WN: A lot of Wired readers spend a lot of time at desks, in front of their computers. Have you done any research on eating at your desk?
We’ve done a couple things with desktop dining. We bring people in and give them pizza and Mountain Dew. But we have them do different tasks like answering email, surfing the web, or talking on the phone while they eat. When they talked on the phone, they ate the least but they liked their food the most. People ended up eating the most and the fastest and liking it the least when they were answering emails. Surfing the web was in-between, like magazine reading.

WN: What kinds of brain processes are driving these things?
Automaticity, which says that a lot of our behavior is automatic or scripted once we do something enough times, like driving to work. We just trip the brain macro and go. Automaticity is important because in some ways it suggests that we’re not as much the master and commander of all our choices as we think we are. There are certain decision defaults that guide our behavior. We can either acknowledge they happen or deny that they happen. But they are going to happen.

WN: What’s the benefit of going on autopilot? What’s the advantage to the human animal?
We’re very much cognitive misers. Our ancestors only allocated enough attention to eating as it required, so they could be vigilantly looking out for mating opportunities or sabertooth tigers that might jump us. That’s the same situation we’re in, but maybe with fewer saber tooth tigers. We don’t want to focus all our concentration on “Must… not… overserve… self.” We have a million other things to think about.

WN: What about food labels? Are they helpful?
Wansink: In every study we do, regardless of what focus is, there’s about 15-20 percent of the people who look at the food label and read it and process it accurately. Of course, 70 percent of people say they do, but they don’t. Plus, if you give someone something and say it’s organic or pesticide-free or low-fat, there’s a health halo that kicks in. People believe it has fewer calories and is more nutritious, so they eat more of it.

WN: Then how do we keep people from eating all the bad stuff?
During the last year or two, I’ve really changed a lot of my thinking. I used to think that awareness was the solution. I’m now convinced that it has nothing do with behavior change. If awareness were the answer, we’d all be rich, skinny, and athletic.

WN: If how we educate consumers is not the question to be asking, what is the right question?
What is the best way to mindlessly change behavior? Simply and metaphorically, we need to put the serving bowl back by the stove. Smaller plates. Taller, skinnier glasses. That’s what we want to go for. Things they don’t have to think about. It’s not about educating people. Part of it relates to economics, I don’t mean dollars and cents. I mean the economics of cognitive effort and the economics of physical effort. Here’s an example. We eat a lot less of the Oreos that come in mini-packs of 2 or 3 because there’s a little cognitive cost and a little physical cost to opening another little package. We have to pause and think.

See Also: Wansink’s Book, Mindless Eating