On this week's episode of Brain Games, Jason Silva serves up food for thought on how our senses affect our nutritional choices.
The episode opens with examples of the kinds of visual manipulations of food most of us are familiar with (portions served on small plates look larger than those served on large plates, food photographed for restaurant ads has more hairspray on it than the entire cast of a John Waters film, etc) before moving on to some of the more interesting ways our cognitive biases influence our response to food.
In the most fascinating demonstration, people on the street are asked to sample four different brownies: one square, one round, one in a fleur-de-lis shape and one, um, cylindrical and lumpy.
Despite the fact that the cylindrical brownie was made with superior ingredients, only one subject was brave enough to give it a go. Everyone else, including the subject's girlfriend, was so repelled by the shape that knowing that it was the best selection made no difference.
In another interesting demonstration, a vendor tries to sell roadkill recipes from a sidewalk booth. Initially, customers are repelled by the idea. However, once the vendor turns on the grill and starts wafting the smell of fried beaver tail out into the street over the audible sound of sizzling meat, he gets plenty of customers.
In this episode, as well as others covering topics like addiction, risk assessment, superstition, gender bias and the like, Silva and his team illustrate that our cognition isn't just more biased than we suppose; it's more biased than we can suppose.
One of the reasons that, despite being wrong about nearly everything, the legacy of Freud endures to this day is his identification of the subconscious as a prime motivator in our decision making process. But where Freud saw a roiling, monstrous dark tide of suppressed sexuality and post-traumatic urinary retention, Silva sees a playground of self-exploration.
One of the central conceits of Western thought is that we humans are fundamentally rational. We may have passions and biases of perception that lead us to sub-0ptimal decisions from time to time, but these are exceptions and edge cases that can be compensated for. Humans are rational in the same way that humans are sighted. Some of us may be blind or in need of corrective lenses, but fundamentally we are visual beings.
What we have learned in the century from Freud to Brain Games is that rationality, while being a strong influence on human behavior, is a latecomer to the human motivation party. Especially regarding our most basic instincts, for food, sex and survival, our brains are particularly adept at making good choices based not on pure reason, but on subconscious instinctive mechanisms.
There is no rational reason to select an inferior fleur-de-lis brownie over a superior poo shaped brownie. But where Freud might attribute our aversion to unpleasant childhood experiences with toilet training and overly (or underly) strict parents, we understand it to be a product of cognitive mechanisms that bypass reason and personal experience altogether. In nature, most stuff that looks like poo...is poo. It's worth missing the occasional tasty poo-shaped treat to have a general policy of eating nothing remotely poo-like.
It's no secret that the advertising industry has spent a fortune over the last century trying to understand and manipulate human psychology. With 70% of Americans now overweight, we can see the power of foods that trigger our reward mechanisms without adequately nourishing our bodies. As our understanding of cognitive triggers becomes more sophisticated, thankfully it looks like we may be able to learn to short circuit our response to these foods without scream therapy, hypnosis or past life regression.
Brain Games airs on Monday nights at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel.
Jason Shankel is a writer and creative developer who knows that sometimes a brownie is just a brownie.