Fast Food is Really Fast!

Fast food. It’s fast. You order it in a hurry; it’s ready in a hurry; you usually eat it in a hurry. Other than the risk of indigestion–and, if you believe some of the medical studies, obesity– you don’t expect fast food to have any affect on you at all. But that may not be the case. In fact, eating fast food may have some interesting, and certainly unintended consequences for those speed diners who frequent McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, et al.

Now, while burgers and fries are prototypical fast foods, the real essence of fast food is not what you eat but how you eat. Everything about fast food is designed with the goal of saving time. Fast food allows us to fill our stomach as quickly as possible and move on to other things–and the other things are always things that we deem to be important, even urgent. It shouldn’t surprise us that the concept of fast food is considered by many to be representative of  a culture that emphasizes efficiency and immediate gratification, and places a high value on our time.

To shed some light on fast food and its effects on our behavior, we turn to the work  of Sanford DeVoe, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. DeVoe’s current research is focused on the psychological dimensions of incentives within organizations, including looking at the tradeoffs between time and money, and how each is valued.

In a  2006 paper co-authored with Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, titled “When time is money: The effect of hourly payment on the evaluation of time,” the authors discuss the effects of hourly pay on the way people value time and money.

It is a common belief  that people value time differently than they value money. Lots of reasons for this are posited, but the most likely explanation is that people simply have more difficulty accounting for time than for money. This difficulty is less apparent for individuals working for hourly pay. DeVoe and Pfeffer cite earlier research by Evans, Kunda, and Barley, whose ethnographic study of technical contractors including engineers, software developers, technical writers, and information technology specialists who sold their services to firms in exchange for an hourly wage. Being paid by the hour and the corresponding requirement to bill client firms for the number of hours spent working (i.e., billable hours) led these technical contractors to develop an appreciation for the microeconomics of time. Billing for their hours provided these contractors with extensive practice in accounting for their time and its value. By being paid by the hour, unlike salaried employees, contractors could put a precise value on every hour of the day—their hourly billing rate.

DeVoe and Pfeffer’s experiments went further, examining the effects of hourly pay practices for non-contract employees on the time/money tradeoffs employees make. Unconsciously, this can have a pernicious effect on other aspects of life. Similar to working hours, leisure time gets a value put on it. It isn’t hard to imagine a lawyer asking himself, “Is it worth $450 times three hours for me to see my son’s soccer game?”  Even more troubling, it can begin to reverse the delayed gratification response; as individuals make more per hour, they want to bill more hours, and unconsciously become more impatient. Perhaps that’s why more and more organizations are moving away from hourly wage pay plans–to remove the secondary negative effects.

But it is  the research paper You Are How You Eat: Fast Food and Impatience, published in 2010, where DeVoe and fellow researcher Chen-Bo Zhong wrote about a series of experiments they conducted to test the theory that even incidental exposure to fast food can lead to impatient behaviors and choices outside of the eating domain that provides real cause for concern about how we are dealing with time.

Simplifying the theoretical structure, their argument worked as follows:

  • Social behaviors can be primed or set up by environmental cues. Much recent research in this area, known as behavioral priming, supports this concept. For example, people who cast their votes in school buildings are more likely to support school funding initiatives than people who vote in other polling places.
  • Because fast food embodies time-saving as a goal, behavioral priming research suggests that exposure to fast food related concepts may automatically increase speed and time preference.
  • The results of the fast food to speed/time preference link are not context sensitive, so the speed/time preference may not always be positive. As an example, walking faster is time efficient when you are late for an appointment; it is a sign of impatience when you are taking a stroll along the beach.
  • So, even though fast food has contributed to a culture of time efficiency, exposure to fast food might also promote impatience.

The first experiment examined whether a subliminal exposure to fast food logos can increase reading speed. They found that even an unconscious exposure to fast-food symbols can automatically increase participants’ reading speed when they are under no time pressure. In the experiment, participants exposed to subliminal flashes of fast food logos performed a reading task 20% faster than a control group.

In the second experiment, the researchers manipulated exposure to fast food related concepts and examined time-saving preference and impatience in consumer choices after the exposure. They found that thinking about fast food increases preferences for time-saving products, or time-saving features of products, despite the existence of potentially many other product dimensions to consider.

Finally, the third experiment examined whether priming behavior via exposure to fast food logos induces impatience in financial decisions–an activity about as far from eating a Big Mac as you can get–as reflected by people’s unwillingness to postpone immediate gains in order to receive greater future returns. This time the researchers found that the participants primed by exposure to  fast food logos were much more likely to accept a smaller payment now rather than waiting for a bigger payment in a week, compared to those in the control condition. Fast food priming seems to have made people impatient in a manner that could put their economic interest at risk.

DeVoe and Zhong’s research clearly indicates that the way people eat has far-reaching (often unconscious) influences on behaviors and choices unrelated to eating. Other research experiments have shown that exposure to fast food logos caused difficulty enjoying music and photographs–they felt that the experiences lasted too long and were boring.

I’d like to say that we have easy ways to defend ourselves against these unconscious environmental influences. But it appears that the effects of hourly pay rates, fast food symbols, and who knows what other factors, are all driven below the level of conscious thought. We probably have to learn to expect continuing exposure to various stimuli that speed us up and make it harder and harder for us to simply “smell the roses.”


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  1. Well said Dave. In our work, we hear the complaint, “I don’t have time to think about what to do with my business (or my life)”. In another arena, a dear friend was offered a FREE 90 minute consult with a psychologist to talk about his plans for retirement. My friend’s response was, “I don’t have 90 minutes in my day to talk to some shrink”. Get this, my friend is a DOCTOR. Unbelievable. Maybe this fast food thing is part of the unwillingness of some many boomers to save for retirement, let alone plan for creating a dynamic, purposeful life after they leave full time work.

  2. In areas which had access to coastal or tidal waters, ‘fast food’ would frequently include local shellfish or seafood, such as oysters or, as in London, eels. Often this seafood would be cooked directly on the quay or close by.’;

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