Don’t put popcorn in front of you while watching a movie

Hasnain Babar via Unsplash

You probably often engage in activities in the presence of food, like listening to music while the cake cools down on the kitchen counter or watching a movie with popcorn sitting on the coffee table. But what if the presence of food actually makes your experience less enjoyable? Recently published research shows that the presence of food makes people enjoy experiences less because they mentally simulate how the food will taste, resulting in a decrease in their engagement with the ongoing experience.

Dr Anne-Kathrin Klesse from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) and Dr Emily Garbinsky from Cornell SC Johnson College of Business conducted several studies in the laboratory and in the field that document a negative effect of the presence of food on the enjoyment of enjoyable activities and also highlight in which instances the presence of food could be beneficial.

Companies intentionally use food to create enjoyable customer experiences. For instance, restaurants frequently make tempting desserts visible to diners while they eat their main course. Amusement parks, movie theatres, and concert venues offer food accompaniments to boost customers’ enjoyment of these experiences. This made the researchers curious to test whether this strategy is effective, and whether or not it does indeed improve customer experiences. Klesse and Garbinsky’s results, however, indicate that this strategy may actually backfire. In many cases, the presence of food decreases customers’ enjoyment of ongoing experiences rather than increasing it.

 
Food and experiences don’t mix

Klesse and Garbinsky conducted their 10 studies using a variety of target experiences, such as listening to music, evaluating pictures, and colouring-in. Participants were students, gallery visitors or concert attendees; their experiences were either in the presence or absence of tempting food – for example cookies or desserts. Afterwards, they indicated their level of enjoyment of that experience.

“The presence of delicious food decreases the enjoyment of positive, ongoing experiences.”

The researchers consistently found that the presence of delicious food decreases the enjoyment of positive, ongoing experiences. They say this happens because the food’s presence prompts mental imagery of consuming that food, which decreases engagement with the target experience. The result is lower levels of enjoyment.
Importantly, Klesse and Garbinsky showed that the presence of food decreases enjoyment of an experience when:

  • The food is perceived as tasty rather than functional (e.g.,  healthy)
  • The target experience – such as viewing pictures – is pleasurable rather than unpleasurable
  • There is no food present but consumers are explicitly made to think about food

Companies frequently use food as a means to boost customer experiences. This research suggests that this strategy may backfire as it potentially decreases consumers’ enjoyment of ongoing experiences rather than increasing it.

What can restaurants learn from this?

Restaurants could benefit from listing appetizers and main dishes on a separate menu from desserts, to prevent diners from imagining eating dessert while eating their other courses.
Similarly, restaurant managers should keep desserts and other tempting foods out of sight while customers eat their main dishes. If restaurant managers think it’s important for customers to see the desserts before they order, they could ask waiting staff to bring the dessert tray to the table for diners to choose one after the have eaten their main course, rather than displaying all the desserts in a prominent and illuminated glass cabinet.
So what can buffet-style restaurants do to avoid this phenomenon of reduced enjoyment when all the dishes are on view all the time? They may want to discourage diners from bringing their desserts to their table before they have eaten their main course. For example, they could create separate areas of the restaurant for the buffet of main dishes and that for desserts, nudging diners to enter the ‘dessert room’ only after they have finished their main course.

What can ‘complementary experience’ industries learn from this?

In places where food is seen as an integral part of an experience – doughnuts at the funfair, popcorn at the cinema, hot chocolate when ice-skating – businesses could encourage customers to consume food immediately after they purchase it rather than taking it with them ‘into’ the experience. These kinds of businesses could also alter the types of food available, offering different kinds of food that must be consumed shortly after its purchase, for example ice cream that customers don’t want to let melt, or hot chocolate that customers dont want to get cold.
Alternatively, they could package food in a way that encourages customers to consume it immediately in order to avoid the hassle of carrying it around.

On the upside…

Klesse and Garbinsky’s results also suggest that the presence of food can increase consumers’ enjoyment of negative experiences; they experimented by asking participants to view unpleasant pictures. So businesses may want to present tasty food in situations where consumers engage in aversive experiences, for example while queuing, to make the experience less negative.

“Presenting food during unenjoyable experiences makes this experience less negative.”

Happiness

Being able to fully enjoy experiences is central to happiness and wellbeing. This research offers important insights into what environmental factors – here the researchers looked at food – can negatively impact consumers’ enjoyment of ongoing experiences. It is important to create a setting in which consumers can be fully engaged to maximise the enjoyment from experiences such as listening to a concert. The presence of tempting food is therefore detrimental because it makes distracts consumers who are invited to imagine what they’ll taste next, and this actually decreases their engagement with and enjoyment of their current experience.

Researcher

dr. Anne-Kathrin Klesse

More information

Dr Anne-Kathrin Klesse and Dr Emily Garbinsky’s paper has been published in Journal of Marketing Research under the title How (and When) the Presence of Food Decreases Enjoyment of Customer Experiences.

 

This article was first published on rsm.nl.

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