September 25, 2017
Cheese macaroni served conceptually on table cloth

When More (Food) Is Less Than It Seems

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

It’s harder to evaluate increases in the size of food servings than to judge decreases, according to a series of studies published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. That may be why people are likely to notice when their favorite brands reduce the size of their packages, while being less aware when quantities increase. It’s not just a matter of economics (that is, feeling cheated by downsizing when the price stays the same) and “loss aversion” (that is, preferring to avoid losses than to acquire equivalent gains). It’s also a matter of perception, the new research suggests.

In one of the studies, 510 people were shown five clear cups containing different portions of small chocolate candies—37, 74, 148, 296, or 592 pieces. In the downsizing test, they were told the count of the largest portion (592) and were asked to estimate the number of candies in the other cups. Their estimates were, on average, fairly accurate (36, 74, 163, and 346). In contrast, in the supersizing test, when they were told the count of the candies in the smallest cup (37), they greatly underestimated the numbers in the larger cups (guessing 57, 102, 184, and 296, on average).

In another study, 70 professional chefs and servers (who should have a sense of food quantities) were shown sequential doubling in portions of food (mashed potatoes, gazpacho, or tabbouleh salad). They underestimated the increases, on average, by about one-third, but they fairly accurately judged portions that were repeatedly cut in half.

It’s easier to gauge decreases in portion sizes because there is a “natural lower bound,” the researchers hypothesized—meaning that the portion can’t go below zero (the bottom of the bowl or cup). But when portions in­­crease, there’s no upper bound, making it hard to judge how big something has be­­come. This was seen in a variation of the first study described above: When participants were told that the cup could hold a maximum of 629 candies, their estimates of size increases were as accurate as their estimates of size decreases.

The researchers suggested that such findings may help explain why many people un­­derestimate or are unaware of the supersizing of food and beverage servings and containers that has occurred in recent years. “More accurate judgments of quantity decreases than of quantity increases may explain asymmetric reactions to food supersizing and downsizing.”

Also see Conrol Your Appetite: 7 Tips.