Living a 24/7 lifestyle in the non-stop digital age makes people more likely to gorge on fast food, according to a new study.
Scientists found that racing against the clock, or feeling as though time is running out, triggers a desire to compensate by eating high-calorie junk food.
In an era when digital technology allows people to stay connected to work, friends and commerce around the clock, life can feel overly busy, and time is often considered a scarce resource.
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Researchers said that when people sense this perception of time running out, they feel a sense of “impending exhaustion of a resource” and look to compensate with another: calories.
“Our research highlights that the common and innocuous practice of timekeeping can produce unwanted and undesirable consequences in the domain of calorie consumption,” said study author Dr. Ankur Kapoor, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management.
According to Kapoor’s findings, when people sense that time is running out to take advantage of opportunities such as flash sales, online payment windows, video games or online movies, their desire to consume high-calorie foods increases.
“More hollandaise on this benedict, please!”
“In other words, if time is shown moving downwards, such as 60, 59, 58, 57 seconds remaining, then consumers sense an impending exhaustion of a resource and this triggers a desire to compensate for this deficiency by consuming a different resource: calories.”
Researchers discovered this pattern in a study where participants were asked to cross out the letter “e” in a passage, while a timer counted either from 1 to 60 seconds, or from 60 to 1. After the task, they then indicated their likelihood of purchasing chocolate cake or fruit salad.
Results revealed people preferred the high-calorie chocolate cake when time was ticking down, but this was not the case when time was ticking up.
“If time is shown moving downwards … consumers sense an impending exhaustion of a resource and this triggers a desire to compensate for this deficiency by consuming a different resource: calories.”
— Dr. Ankur Kapoor, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management
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The team then explored whether they could change this pattern in another experiment in which people were asked to complete a word search puzzle.
One group saw the timer counting down the seconds, while the other group saw the number of elapsed seconds.
Half of the people in each group were asked to remember instances when they felt like they had sufficient resources, while the other half recalled mundane, everyday events in their lives.
Finally, all participants were invited to take sweets as a thank-you for their participation. Those who were exposed to the downward time took more sweets than those who saw time moving upward, but only when they recalled mundane events.
“If time is shown moving downwards … consumers sense an impending exhaustion of a resource and this triggers a desire to compensate for this deficiency by consuming a different resource: calories,” said Dr. Ankur Kapoor, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Management.
The effect was not found when people recalled an abundance of resources.
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“Although this study focused on how the direction of timekeeping can influence food choices, the findings suggest that consumers who see time counting down may experience other consequences,” Kapoor said.
“People who feel that resources are deficient may become less open to taking risks or participating in pro-social behaviors like volunteering or donating resources. When time is viewed as a resource, downward time-keeping devices may also create a sense of artificial urgency that could affect an individual’s attitude in other situations, like meals and conversations.”
Researchers hope the study will spur further research to explore other implications of their findings, like the psychological effects of monitoring other finite resources, such as money left in prepaid accounts or battery indicators on smartphones.
“Today, there is an increased ability to monitor things like time, health, sleep and food,” Kapoor added. “We hope that this research provides initial insights into the subtle effects of direction of resource monitoring.”
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The findings were published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.