American restaurant portions: The clinical term for them is “ginormous.” They exist because that’s what the restaurant industry thinks consumers want, and given obesity rates in the U.S., it’s pretty clear that a lot of people are in fact having one too many 2,000-calorie portions of Deep Dish Macaroni & 3-Cheese at Uno’s. But what we do (or eat) in the heat of the moment doesn’t always line up with what will make us happier, and a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that megajumbo servings may provide people with less of a happiness boost and make them less likely to seek out the food in question in the immediate future, as compared to more reasonable-size ones.
The researchers, from Stanford and Boston University, conducted three experiments involving the consumption of crackers and juice by some of the biggest snack aficionados on the planet: college students. The short version of what they found is that people’s memories of the end of their cracker-eating session tended to “interfere” with memories of their initial moment.
Why does this matter? Because the enjoyment of each bite of a given food (what an economist might call “marginal enjoyment”) tends to decrease as you get fuller. In general, your first bite of your first slice of pizza can be a transcendent experience. When, more out of a sense of perverse obligation than anything, you somehow manage to stuff the final remnants of your fifth slice into your face-hole (not speaking from personal experience or anything), you’re definitely enjoying it less.
These experiments suggest that those less pleasant moments of being totally stuffed could “win out,” in a sense, over happier moments of earlier gluttony. And while these experiments didn’t constitute realistic eating conditions since, as the authors point out, “participants in all three experiments were assigned to eat and did eat a portion of a predetermined size,” the researchers do think there are potential real-world takeaways:
An important practical implication of this research is that the preference for larger portions expressed by consumers and companies… may be disadvantageous for both. Larger portions not only increase intake and reduce average enjoyment of the foods that people consume, but also may extend the amount of time that passes until people again include those enjoyable foods in their shopping baskets or return to the same restaurants.
And yet I still look back with fondness upon my college memories of all-I-could-eat Olive Garden bread sticks.