As a regular item in NeedToKnow: Trade Marks, I highlight a scientific or psychological study on consumer behaviour that has caught my attention.

In earlier blogs, I have looked at how external environmental factors can unconsciously cause us to purchase certain products. Two recent studies have turned the focus on two unexpected factors, distractions and sleepiness, and have looked at their unconscious effect on a consumer’s food choices and consumption.

In the first experiment 1, students were asked to taste and rate the sweetness of different drinks and the saltiness of different crackers. While undertaking this taste-test, students were given a mental task to perform concurrently (of varying complexity, such as repeating and remembering a string of letters). The researchers found that those students who were distracted by a complex mental task were more likely to rate the drinks as less sweet and the crackers less salty (and eat more of them) than those who were performing the simpler mental tasks. The researchers took the experiment one step further by asking students to add a sweetener to a drink to reach their preferred level of sweetness. Again, during this task, the students were distracted by mental tasks, and again those students distracted by the more complex tasks added more sweetener to the drinks to reach their preferred level of sweetness. Somehow, distractions while we are eating and drinking cause us to ignore information coming from our taste buds. The results of these studies may explain why some cafes and fast-food restaurants are designed around multiple and maximum distractions – tables close together, high noise levels, loud music, multiple TV screens, monitors and moving boards, magazines, newspapers, free wi-fi, etc. By distracting diners, food outlets may be causing diners to consume more high-calorie and high-salt food than they would ordinarily.

The second experiment 2 involved very tired sleepy rats, but the results could equally apply to very tired sleepy humans. In that experiment, the researchers scanned the brains of sleep-deprived rats and monitored their food intake. The researchers found that the nucleus accumbens of sleepy rats were more active; this area of the brain produces substances which regulate food motivation and reward. Effectively, lack of sleep released substances that caused a craving (resistant to feedback control) to snack on sweet or high-fat foods. This could also explain the high-level of TV advertising for sweet and high-fat foods at night, when we are most likely to be feeling the effects of the previous night’s lack of sleep. Also, this may explain the high sales of take-away food at night and the preference for fast food by tired shift workers and late night revellers.

Marketers will no doubt relish the results of these findings – they show clear “sensitive points” in our day in which we are more vulnerable to succumb to overeating generally or to overeating high-sugar or high-fat foods. The rest of us should use this information to improve our eating habits – by eating with minimal distractions, eating earlier in the day and getting a good night’s sleep.