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Study: Thinking About Fast Food May Spur Desire for Instant Gratification

April 15, 2010 -- Despite saving us time, fast food may make us impatient and more likely to seek instant gratification, new research finds.

University of Toronto researchers Chen-Bo Zhong, PhD, and Sanford E. DeVoe, PhD, conducted a trio of experiments before coming to that conclusion in a report published in Psychological Science.

The first experiment found that exposure to fast-food symbols increases reading speed even when there's no pressure to read fast. In the experiment, they randomly assigned 57 college students to look at the center of a computer screen but ignore the corners. Those in the fast-food group were exposed to fast-food logos, flashed in the corners too quickly for the conscious mind to register the images. Those in the comparison group looked at blank squares in the corners. Next, when they all read a passage, those exposed to the logos had a faster reading speed.

In a second experiment, the researchers asked 91 participants either to recall a time they had a fast-food meal or the last time they went grocery shopping, then to rate the desirability of eight products, half of which were time saving (such as combined shampoo/conditioner) and half of which weren't (such as regular shampoo). Those asked to recall their fast-food meal desired the time-saving products more than those who recalled grocery shopping.

In the third experiment, 58 participants were asked to rate the aesthetics of logos either from fast-food franchises (McDonald's and KFC) or from inexpensive diners. Next, researchers asked about preferences on saving money. Saving money involves delayed gratification in order to receive a greater monetary gain in the future. Those who were exposed to the fast-food logos needed a much higher weekly interest rate to delay payment than did those in the comparison group.

Bottom line? ''Exposure to fast food and related symbols reinforces an emphasis on impatience and instant gratification and ... fast food can have a far broader impact on individuals' behaviors and choices than previously thought," the researchers write.

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