Every consumer knows not to go to a grocery store when hungry because it invariably ends the same way – leaving the store with way more food than needed – when an empty stomach is in charge of the trip (and therefore, the wallet) instead of a more rational mind.
However, new behavioral science research published last week suggests that actually, it’s not just more food that people buy when they are hungry – it’s pretty much anything they can get their hands on.
“Hunger motivates people to consume food, for which finding and acquiring food is a prerequisite,” the researchers write in the Journal – simultaneously raining truth and setting up the more salient question at hand: “Are hungry people also more likely to acquire more things that cannot satisfy their hunger?”
As it turns out – yes, yes they are.
While hunger is known to make people more grumpy, it also apparently loosens their hold on their wallets as well. The researchers took four groups of 76 participants through four experiments to test how hunger affects general patterns of purchasing. The researchers additionally polled shoppers in the field.
For the lab–based experiments, the initial group played a word game in which they were asked to remember if flashcards they had seen had actual words or gibberish on them.
The second group was polled to gauge their desire for both food and nonfood items while entering a cafe to eat, and then again after eating.
The third group was asked what they thought of a specific office binder clip and how many they’d want for a free tryout.
A fourth group took part in the same binder clip experiment, but was told not to eat for four hours before being presented with a cake.
The results found that hungry people were more likely to identify a real word when it related to food or hunger. It also found that people in the cafe expressed greater desire for food and nonfood items before they had eaten, rather than after. In the third group, researchers found that hunger did not affect how much anyone liked the clips but that hungry people generally asked for more freebies. In the version that involved cake, those who had cake asked for fewer binder clip freebies than those who did not.
“You’re not really seeing such a lusting for binder clips, that is an unlikely response to have,” USC Professor of Psychology and study co–author Norbert Schwarz told NPR. “What’s going on more is that [consumers] are really wanting food and when [they] pursue goals [they] don’t just pursue the end state. There are several steps involved and pursuing a goal increases the likelihood that any of these steps comes to mind and you enact it when you have a chance. As a result you are taking more binder clips or you’re buying more nonfood items that you cannot eat while it is on your mind to get stuff.”
Schwarz went on to note that while being hungry did tend to make consumers more favorably view their food purchases, the same wasn’t true of nonfood purchases. At best, consumers were neutral to them. At worst, they actually seemed to view them more negatively.
“People do not like this stuff more, they are just taking more off it and it’s kind of a mindless spillover of the mindset you are in.”
The experiment was taken out of the lab to see if it held true of people who were just shopping and not knowingly participating in an experiment. The researchers asked actual department store shoppers how hungry they were as they exited the (non-grocery, mostly no food items) store and then asked to take a look at their receipt. Even factoring out how much time they spent shopping and their general mood – the hungry shoppers were not just buying more, they were buying a whole lot more, according to Schwarz.
“Shoppers who are more hungry come out of the mall with more stuff. We scanned their receipts and analyzed them, and they are buying more things and spending more money. And the difference is relatively large, in the neighborhood of 60 percent more stuff.”
The bad news for consumers: there may actually be nothing one can do about it other than remembering to eat before you shop, as it isn’t the type of behavior consumers can control with superior willpower, notes Schwarz.
“Your willpower would require that you say ‘I don’t want to act on this,’ but you’re very unlikely to even notice that you are doing it and willpower is not very helpful when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
It could, however, be good news for merchants – especially those that find their physical locations are in the footpath of a hungry and apparently commerce–enthused lunch crowd.
As for online? The researchers in this phase of the study only studied real world commerce experiences, though Schwartz says they are confident that the effect will be present and perhaps even more noticeable online.
“We haven’t tested online shopping but I’m quite confident that it will work for online shopping. In part because the constraints are even less, it’s an easier to engage in shopping behavior, you only have to click on it.”
Schwarz says the research group that just published this hopes to begin a separate study of e-commerce behavior next.