Putting a new spin on the concept of “stress eating,”
research presented at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual
Meeting & Expo® found that people who eat during times of stress typically
seek the foods they eat out of habit – regardless of how healthy or unhealthy
that food is.
The research co-authored and presented by David Neal, PhD, a
psychologist and founding partner at Empirica Research, contradicts the
conventional wisdom that people who are stressed-out turn to high-calorie,
low-nutrient comfort food.
“Habits don’t change in a high-pressure situation,” Neal
said. “People default to what their habits are under stress, whether healthy or
In the study he and his co-authors conducted this year, 59
MBA students at the University of California, Los Angeles, were asked during
midterm exams which snack they would like from an array that included healthy snacks (fruit, non-fat yogurt, whole
wheat crackers, nuts/soy chips) and
unhealthy options (various candy bars, flavoured popcorn, sugar
cookies). They also were asked to rate
how often during the week they choose that snack. The results found that during
peak stress like an exam, participants were likely to fall back on their
“Habits are 45% of daily life,” Neal said. “They cause us to
disregard rational or motivational drivers and instead be cued by context,
automated actions, time pressure and low self-control.”
This kind of research has significant implications for food
manufacturers trying to establish new products with consumers, said panelist
Neale Martin, PhD, founding partner of Sublime Behavior Marketing and author of
Habit: the 95% of Behavior Marketers Ignore.
Martin noted that consumers already are habituated to the
current products on store shelves, with the average weekly shopping trip taking
about 45 minutes and including 31 items.
“Think about the cognitive efficiency of that effort,”
Martin said. “Think of how many things you’re not looking at; how many things
you are ignoring.”
He believes that is a major reason that about 80% of new products
fail or dramatically underperform, a rate that has been largely unchanged for
decades. A new product has to become part of the daily habits of consumers,
which is not an easy task.
Martin suggests product developers go beyond the traditional
consumer trials and get consumers to absorb the product into their daily life
over an extend period of time. They need to find a place in their day where
they are willing to disrupt their current habit and adopt a new one with that
“Where is the room for another brand in your life? Where is
there room for another product? We are overwhelmed by choices,” he said.
“Figure out the automated behaviour and then find out how to disrupt it and get
consumers to initiate the behaviour you want. You have to get the behaviour to
occur and then reinforce it by making sure the experience is so fantastic they
want it to happen again.”