Nothing is irrelevant to our judgement of things, events, and even people. Minor aspects can make substantial differences in our evaluations; seemingly unrelated items get connected and intermingled in our brains. You can see these effects everywhere – in previous posts we’ve discussed how the angle from which you watch someone impacts how trusworthy you think they are; how high pitch music induces feelings of morality which leads to healthier food choices; how having a romantic crush promotes variety-seeking in consumption. Another brilliant example of how everything communicates to our brains comes from a recently published study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Looking to contribute to lowering obesity by understanding the ways in which people estimate the amount of calories in food, the authors investigated the impact of food availability on our judgement. What they found out is something we might call ‘the food scarcity effect’: if we think certain item is scarce, we think it has more calories.

How many calories in a kiwi?

It depends on how abundant you think kiwi is. In one of their studies the authors asked a number of students to read a description of a local store but they varied the description between different students – one group read that the store offers scarce varieties of food; the other, “all of the foods sold at the store were of a typical variety”; the third description included no reference to abundance or scarcity at all. In the latter case, people thought a kiwi contains about 66 calories. If people were primed to think of abundance, they considered a kiwi to contain approximately the same amount of calories – about 63. But when they thought it’s a scarce food, their esimation went up by an untrivial amount – the same hairy brown fruit all of a sudden was thought to contain 85 calories! (in reality it contains about 42 calories; was Douglas Adams on to something with that number?) In other words, just because of kiwi’s scarcity or abundance our perception of how nutritious it is increases by a third.

Getting more of what one can’t have

Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

The mechanism behind the food scarcity effect is relatively straighforward – we simply want more of what we can’t have. At the first step, if food is scarce we think it’s also more valuable and expensive. This in turn makes us feel deprived of important goods, which unlocks a desire to acquire more resources, leading to our overestimation of food item’s calorie richness.

In related experiments for example, “Dai and Hsee (2013) showed that hungry people (i.e., those deprived of caloric resources), overestimate (underestimate) the weight of a cake when told they cannot (can) eat it. Briers and Laporte (2013) found that financially dissatisfied people (i.e., those deprived of financial resources) perceive brownies to provide more (less) energy when told they cannot (can) eat the food.”

So what happens, the authors of our study asked, if people were given ownership of the food item? If you think the scarce food-more calories effect disappears you are right but only partially. It reverses completely! Consistently with what we discussed about kiwis, if people considered cashews to be scarce they thought they contain about a third more calories compared to if they thought they are abundant. When they were given the cashews though their estimation goes in the exact opposite direction – in a split second cashews that are scarce but owned by you are seen as having less calories than cashews that are abundant.

So why care about this?

For one thing, it is a brilliant example of the malleability of our judgements. How we think of things is being constantly framed by a plethora of factors, most of which unrecognized by us. Here we showed how the perception of scarcity can influence our estimation of calories in food. But it goes way beyond that. We are influenced by sounds, colours, angles from which we look, textures, shapes, and what not, and we’d better be aware of these influences lest we consider ourselves infallible

More than 30 years ago Robert Cialdini outlined scarcity as one of the key principles of persuasion: we like things more when they become less available. And this is a principle marketers and advertisers have also known for a very long time – the ‘limited time offer’ is a prime example. Now we know that this also applies to food – if we think a food item is scarce we tend to think it’s more valuable, and in food this means one thing – having more calories.

My best wishes for a great day ahead and remember – everything communicates.

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