One of the books I’m currently reading is called Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers, and the Psychology of Shopping. I call it one of my ‘nerd books’ – it’s one of those books where I’ll volunteer to talk about the studies to my friends and family, and they give me a look that says, “What exactly have you been reading?” I get excited about studies on how the type background music can affect purchasing decisions and quantities. You know, nerd stuff. The book talks a lot about how in market research, based on your attitude and the questions you ask, you can prime the consumer into giving certain types of responses, or even change the way they think about something.
I had a somewhat analogous experience when I was talking to my best friend. Let’s call him Mason. Mason is a pretty simple guy when it comes to food. His favorite food is watermelon, but he’ll devour virtually any type of fruit in an instant, and his other favorite ‘food groups’ are yogurt, cereal, and granola. He’s a breakfast-all-the-time kind of guy. When you combine is favorite ‘food groups’ – fruit, yogurt, and granola - you end up with a parfait. But Mason doesn’t eat many parfaits, but he does like parfait drinks – the kind in the grocery store next to the bottled fruit smoothies or organic kombucha. Mason is the kind of guy that would drink a nutritional shake with all his daily nutritional needs instead of eating real food. The parfait drink is something of a dream come true.
Now, our grocery store carries two flavors of parfait drink, strawberry parfait drink and peach parfait drink. Mason has a long history with strawberry parfait; he likes it a lot and is impressed with how much it tastes like a real parfait. (I politely disagree; I think it tastes like watered-down strawberry yogurt). Mason only recently tried peach parfait drink for the first time. On this momentous occasion, Mason and I were discussing the finer nuisances of the two flavors of parfait drinks. I asked Mason which he liked more, and he replied that he preferred strawberry. I added my two cents, stating, “I think the strawberry flavor has an artificial taste to it. I think the peach parfait tastes more natural.” Despite his somewhat odd food preferences, Mason is very conscious of what he perceives to be healthy food. The moment I completed my sentence, Mason made one of those I-take-back-what-say(!) faces and switched his opinion to, “Actually, I like peach better.” The next time he buys a parfait drink, it will probably be peach.
This ties into the idea that our food preferences are not entirely based on taste; there are also psychological factors. For example, in a blind taste test we might prefer the store brand, but when we do the same taste test the brands showing, we might switch our preference to the name brand. In the case of the parfaits, the brands were the same, but when I mentioned one tasted “healthier” Mason’s opinion changed.
My mom used a similar tactic on me when I was in elementary school and slightly obsessed with McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. After enduring several years of McDonald’s-related fervor, my mom had just about had enough, and she came up with a new tactic. Every time I was eating the chicken nuggets, my mom would tell me in a matter-of-fact way that they were filled with all the leftover parts of the chicken – like chicken feet and chicken eyes, and how they were all ground up into those golden morsels I so adored. I stopped eating them pretty shortly after that. I went from, “Chicken McNuggets are the best!” to “Chicken McNuggets are gross” in the span of a few weeks.
The amount we visited McDonald’s subsequently decreased. I only went to McDonald’s when I really wanted the Happy Meal toy, ordered a hamburger with my Happy Meal, and refused to eat the hamburger because I didn’t like the taste of it. The hamburger didn’t induce a sense of nausea from the idea of eating ground up chicken feet and eyeballs so it still seemed like a preferable alternative to the chicken nuggets that I actually liked the taste of.
I’m still afraid of eating Chicken McNuggets to this very day.