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…

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dr laura’s animosity is another man’s praise

This is almost enough – in and of itself – to make me want to read this book:

The studies in this book … [have] been featured multiple times on 20/20, the BBC, and other network TV shows, and they’ve been bantered about by Rush Limbaugh and berated by Dr. Laura.

[from Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think]