Pavlov’s Dessert Cart

September 12th, 2010

Podcast by Christopher Intagliata: Bookshops and DVD stores are closing up. No surprise, because who would pay more at the store when you can get it cheaper online? A bunch of Caltech undergrads, that’s who.

Researchers found that the students were willing to pay 50 percent more for just about anything—DVD’s but also potato chips, Snickers bars, mugs—as long as the item was in front of them, as opposed to just the item’s image or text description. That study appears in the American Economic Review. [Benjamin Bushong et al.]

The researchers thought some sort of Pavlovian response might be at play—even though they didn’t just test with foods—because they say seeing a trinket or a snack within reach makes you want to grab it and handle it or eat it. So they showed candy and chips to the subjects once more, but out of reach behind plexiglass. Under those conditions, the students’ desire for the snacks diminished, as if they’d merely seen an image or description.

So next time you’re stuffed and the waiter wheels around the dessert cart, know that the odds are against you. Just cross your fingers that the chocolate cake’s under a glass dome, to help you resist the urge.


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