Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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jelly beans

Peter Todd
Peter Todd
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Food for Thought

by Tracy James

I have before me a jelly-bean feast. After ranking the candies' flavors from most to least favorite, I dig in and put my taste buds to the test. I am tasting and thinking about the flavors of jelly beans for the sake of science (it's a tough job). First I get to choose the order in which to eat some flavors selected for me---very cherry, buttered popcorn, chocolate, and green apple. Questions follow, such as why I chose the sequence (favorite first, least last), how much I enjoyed eating each jelly bean on a scale of 1 to 10, and where I fall in birth order among my siblings. Then more jelly bean flavors and more questions. After my experiment, I learn that I would have enjoyed my beans better if I had saved the best flavors for last instead of gobbling them down first. But then again, I didn't predict my preferences very well to begin with--I liked chocolate and green apple much more than expected.

What can eating orange, green, brown, pink, and purple candies tell us scientifically? The type of experiment described above, involving much larger samples of people, can help answer a variety of questions, such as why people eat food in specific orders and how we put together our memories of eating experiences. Does birth order influence how we choose what we eat? (Perhaps growing up with sibling rivals makes people take the best foods first.) Do we add up all the moments of tasting during an eating experience or just remember a few select ones? (Regrettably, I still remember the taste of the buttered-popcorn jelly bean.)

Peter Todd is the mastermind behind this memory experiment with jelly beans. He spends a lot of time thinking about what and how people eat. With his students, he analyzes popular weight loss diets to see which ones involve more complex thinking on the dieter's part. He investigates how well parents predict their children's food choices. In short, Todd is a thinking man's foodie.

"It's interesting and challenging to apply a scientific approach to figure out if there are systematic ways that we think about food and eating, even without realizing it," says Todd, who is a professor in Indiana University Bloomington's cognitive science program, School of Informatics, and Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "From a biological standpoint, it's such an adaptively important behavioral domain, and yet in the context of the growing field of evolutionary psychology, where it should be studied, there's very little research done involving food and eating."

Heuristics for lunch?

Before coming to Bloomington two years ago, Todd was co-director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition (ABC) at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. With co-authors Benjamin Scheibehenne (then a visiting researcher in IU's cognitive science program) and Linda Miesler (of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition), Todd published a study earlier this year titled "Fast and frugal food choices: Uncovering individual decision heuristics," which appeared in the journal Appetite.

Using 20 lunch meals from a food court in Germany (dishes such as Big Macs, sushi, bagels and lox, bratwurst, and currywurst), Todd and his colleagues asked study participants to rate important attributes about food in general and then about the particular lunch dishes. Next, participants were asked to make choices between numerous pairs of the 20 dishes. The researchers ran a computerized analysis comparing the participants' actual choices with the selections predicted by the participants' earlier rankings.

Traditional models of rational decision-making hold that people will make better choices if they consider all the various attributes of the food before choosing a meal. Todd and his colleagues found, however, that a simple heuristic, or rule of thumb, focusing on a short list of must-have food features proved just as effective at predicting participants' food choices as a thorough weighting and combining of a host of food attributes. Mulling over the meal choices would take longer, but would not lead to different choices. The findings have evolutionary implications, according to Todd.

"An organism that takes more time to decide which of two appropriate foods it will eat can lose out to another organism that sweeps in and makes a quick decision and steals its lunch," he explains.

Decision-making has been Todd's research focus for more than a decade. In Germany, he worked with psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, economists--even an aeronautical engineer--to understand how and when simple decision-making processes are at work. His early work at the ABC center involved mate choice, strategies for searching for resources, and the evolution of behavior. At IU, he has extended those projects and is studying the benefits of cognitive limits as well as modeling the evolution of mate search tactics and investigating how people make sequential choices (including searching for partners, jobs, or parking spaces). This summer, for example, he published a study on decision-making in speed-dating in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A chance consequence of the publication of Todd's co-authored book Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (Oxford University Press, 1999) led him to start thinking about human food choices. After Simple Heuristics appeared, the work at the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition caught the attention of Nestlé.

The book proved controversial, Todd says, because it contradicted the prevailing view that simple heuristic approaches often lead to mistakes. The book gave examples of how a simplified decision-making process works very well in certain circumstances. Nestlé researchers wanted to learn more about how such a process could work in the food domain and invited Todd to Switzerland to fill them in. That visit sparked Todd to begin thinking about how people might use simple decision-making mechanisms to choose what and how much to eat.

When the world makes you eat

"Peter Todd's work makes great contributions to theory," says Cornell University Professor Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. "But what I also find remarkable is that the questions have real-world relevance. You can discuss it in the greatest psychology department in the nation, and you can talk about it casually, and people will find news-you-can-use. It's rare for research to have an immediately transparent impact on an individual's life, but also be rigorous enough to get into the best journals in the field."

Todd and Wansink have mutual respect for each other's work and have collaborated on research. Wansink's Mindless Eating is required reading in Todd's freshman honors seminar this fall, a new course focusing on food in the context of cognitive science that Todd has developed. The two researchers approach food psychology from different directions--Todd's training is in decision-making, evolutionary psychology, and modeling, while Wansink is in Cornell's Department of Applied Economics and Management--but both share an experimental approach to food psychology, a field that has more often been the domain of historians, sociologists, and psychologists relying on surveys.

When Todd and his students discuss Mindless Eating, they will talk about Wansink's findings that the environment (commercials, mall kiosks, candy bowls, etc.) leads people to make numerous food choices that they don't think about.

"The environment influences our behavior," says Todd. "If you change the environment, you can change the behavior."

A person can take charge of his or her own personal environment by making mindful choices such as putting out bowls of fruit, instead of candy. Another example of eating mindfulness,

Todd says, is getting people to think about the order in which they eat dishes at a meal, to make themselves more satisfied with the overall experience.

Ewww, yuk!

Todd's Adaptive Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at IU Bloomington is in its "growing stage." A big open room decorated with banana trees (no fruit yet) contains large computer monitors on which simulations or research stimuli can be viewed. Smaller rooms are nearby for individual experiments.

Several undergraduate research assistants, a full-time graduate student, one post-doctoral fellow, and visitors from Europe help with the research. Todd, who grew up in Silicon Valley, was drawn to IU by the university's interdisciplinary strengths in cognitive science, animal behavior, and information technology.

Food seems like a natural topic for engaging a group of freshmen in cognitive science questions. Without Mom or Dad around to decide about dinner, they may find themselves making far more choices about what to eat, offering a great opportunity to get them to think about how they make those choices and what influences them.

In one recent study, Todd and his Berlin students Jutta Mata and Scheibehenne examined how well Mom and Dad predict their children's food choices. As it turns out, parents do a good job of predicting their school-age children's food choices accurately, despite the fact that food preferences within a family are often diverse. Because of this, parents cannot rely just on their own food preferences when deciding what their kids might eat. They have to know something about the kids' idiosyncratic preferences themselves, wherever they come from.

It's probably a safe bet that few students will prefer one of the goodies Todd is bringing to his class this fall. He's offering his students bugs--snack-sized boxes of "fried meal worms with Mexican Spice," to be specific. Avoiding the disgusting food may be a quick and easy choice for his IU students, but Todd notes that taste preferences are learned. In other words, there's a lot more to what we choose to eat than how a food tastes.

Maybe so, but give me a buttered popcorn jelly bean over fried worms anyday.

Tracy James is media relations specialist in the IU Office of University Communications and a freelance writer in Bloomington.