Length of Food Decision Reflects What You’re Factoring In

woman choosing food

When you open up the cupboard, how do you decide what you’re going to snack on? Is it based on what you’re craving? The tastiest thing you lay eyes on? Or perhaps the healthiest snack available? A team of researchers has attempted to try and better understand this decision-making process by picking apart how a person decides what to eat.

The research team started by wondering how health factors into food decisions. Based on past research, they believed that taste was the primary consideration to the health factor. Taste is an easy measure for most since knowing how good something tastes is just a matter of putting it in your mouth. Determining health is a more intellectual process that involves gathering information about the food and its ingredients and deciding whether they’re “healthy.” Because that mental math takes time, the researchers guessed that a decision about what to eat was first made on taste with health information later layered on.

To test this, they gathered a group of individuals who had been fasting for four hours and asked them to rate food items based on health, taste and how much they’d like to eat it once they were done. This first stage helped the researchers get a sense of how much each participant liked certain foods and how healthy or tasty they thought each one might be. They were then shown random pairs of those foods and had to click on the food they wanted more.

The research team tracked the movement of the mouse on the screen during this decision. They assumed the direction it moved reflected the decision a person was making. If it moved toward the tastier food, the decision was based on taste. If it moved toward the healthier food, the decision was based on health. If it changed direction, new information had entered the picture. This way the researchers could test whether taste or health first came into play and how often the later one entered the picture.

The team found that taste always came before health in decision-making.  Interestingly, though, the amount of time before health entered the picture varied. Those who thought of it the fastest were called the “high self-control” group because they picked the healthy option more often. The slower, “low self-control” group took 50% longer to bring health information into the picture. In many cases, that was too late. For one-third of all participants, health never factored in. These people went straight for taste every time, healthy or not.

The real difference between the two groups was whether or not health information got in quickly enough to influence decisions about eating. Those with high self-control factored in health early enough that it could play a role. The low self-control group didn’t factor it in fast enough. By the time they thought of it, they’d already committed to a decision based on taste.

The researchers say knowing this could help those with low self-control make healthier decisions. They think that slowing down decisions about food could provide enough time for health considerations to sneak in. If you feel like you always make decisions based on taste, it might just mean that you need to give yourself more time to consider that health factor before making a final commitment.