my (and the pro’s) reviews of Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating (audiobook narrated by Marc Cashman)

fascinating compilation of loads of food experiments + a little self-help

This is one-part self-help book and several parts a popularization of a fascinating body of research This book is part of the now-very-ample tradition of writing books that popularize social science experiments: among others, the near neighbors of Mindless Eating include Freakonomics (economics), Predictably Irrational (behavioral economics), The Tipping Point (social psychology), and Stumbling on Happiness (psychology).

Relative to its neighbors, this book has two great strengths: its focus and its practicality. Because Wansink has done so many experiments over the years in a focused vein, he is able to keep the book trained on why we eat as much as we do. (Chapter 6 is a tangent, on how we make food more appetizing, but it’s interesting enough that we forgive him.) And Wansink tries to translate the implications of each experiment into a practical action.

This is the kind of experiment he describes:

1.We invited people to the movies and gave each person a bucket of stale popcorn, some a big bucket and some a gigantic bucket. No one finished their popcorn, but the people with giant buckets ate much more. Practical action: Eat from smaller plates and smaller containers.

2.We gave people big bags of 100 M&Ms, with the M&Ms split into smaller bags inside. Some people had 10 smaller bags of 10 M&Ms, some of 5 of 20, etc. Who ate the most M&Ms? Practical action: Split your food into smaller packages to create pause points.

The disadvantage of the focus is that a few times I felt the book get repetitive. But overall, it was fascinating work. One of the key take-aways is how affected people are by these subtle biases even once they know about them. There is no solution but to use smaller plates or otherwise affect the environment.

My only other critique was that Wansink hadn’t actually tested some of the behavioral recommendations, like making a list of three ways to reduce your calories by unnoticeable amounts and then checking off the three each day. How often would people stick to such a program? How often would they overcompensate in other areas, nullifying the effect? We don’t know. With so many experiments, why not actually test the behavioral recommendations?

Overall, though, I really enjoyed the book. It was entertaining, insightful, and it had some real practicality to boot. (I now eat off tiny plates and try to eat until I’m not hungry rather than until I’m full.)

I listened to the unabridged audiobook – 5 CDs, narrated by Marc Cashman. The narration was lively and entertaining.

See below for the professional reviews…

American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:  In this book, he has made the dry academic reports of his and of his colleagues’ research more readily available to the nonscientist in fun, irreverent (nonacademic) language and by using clever drawings; in addition, he partially packaged the book as a self-help tome. If you are not aware of Wansink’s work, this is an enjoyable, painless way to become acquainted with interesting research that should be taken into account in weight-maintenance studies. If you have tried to lose weight through more traditional diets,and have not succeeded,you may want to try some of the many “mindless” suggestions made in this book.

Journal of Marketing: Essentially, this book acquaints the reader with the research that is being conducted in Brian Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and with the research at some of the other food labs primarily in the United States. Introduction to a few of the research questions asked will provide an introduction to the contents: “If your bowl never emptied, for how long would you keep eating Tomato soup?” “Do big plates and big spoons result in big servings?” “If you are given a large box of spaghetti and a large jar of sauce, will you make and eat more than if you were given medium-sized packages?” “How many calories do you consume (or think you consume) when dining at McDonald’s versus Subway restaurants?” Wansink pulls together varied research on people’s food consumption behaviors to build a picture of the unsuspected dynamics of eating and, in particular, of overeating. … Although this book is ostensibly written for the individual—shall I say, the consumer—wanting to reengineer his or her food life and make it more mindful, it is also a book that may be of interest to a select group of academics. Because the quick-reading ten chapters are followed by extensive notes, including references to researcher perspectives and journal articles, it may be useful for those interested in exploring the intersection of psychology and food marketing. Across disciplines that use behavioral research, I believe that this book would be good for doctoral students to read—first, because Wansink communicates in an enviable way that research can be fun and, second, because he also makes it perfectly clear that not all experiments work as planned. The engineering required to make the bottomless-soup-bowl experiment work properly, though messy, would be comforting to students grappling with their own attempts at manipulating stimuli in the lab. Furthermore, Wansink communicates a home-grown passion for his work that is inspiring. His farming family helped him understand the long chain between the seeds in the ground and the plate and what is on it. This is perhaps the perspective taking that makes his enthusiasm so convincing.

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