This Food Psychology Experiment Was Nearly Foiled By Chronic Politeness

Illustration for article titled This Food Psychology Experiment Was Nearly Foiled By Chronic Politeness

Psychology experiments have to straddle the line between letting people act naturally, and forcing them to act out an extremely specific situation. Sometimes that doesn’t work out. Here’s an experiment that drove psychologists crazy. Why? Because they underestimated the politeness of Minnesotans.


Psychologist Traci Mann runs a food lab at the University of Minnesota. She helped NASA develop a study currently testing the stress-reducing ability of comfort food in space. That’s a complicated proposition, but one of her experiments provided (accidental) proof that even simple tests can make experimenters tear their hair out with frustration.

Mann and her staff tested out whether a person, working on a “project” with two friends, would specifically choose healthy foods and ignore unhealthy foods if their friends did the same. Unsurprisingly, they would. Surprisingly, this was a tough experiment to test. The scientists had to put out a spread of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and pastries for each experimental trio. They’d coached the two friends to only put vegetables on their plate, and planned to see what the last, uncoached person would eat if they observed their friends being healthy. The subjects, students from the university, got color-coded plates, and the food had color-coded toothpicks. By observing which toothpicks were left on which plates the scientists could leave the room, let the students behave completely naturally, and then figure out who ate what after the students left.

After the first group left, the researchers entered the lab and found that both the plates and the toothpicks had been gathered up and considerately thrown in the trash. All they’d managed to do during the first experiment was feed three students.

The researchers took the trash can out of the room, and welcomed the next set of subjects. They planned to come back after a period of time that would give the students plenty of time to eat and work on their project. Before they could return to the room, they heard someone calling them. A student had come looking for them, all the plates and toothpicks jumbled together in her hands, asking where the trash can was so she could throw the plates and toothpicks away.

After that, the researchers started telling the students to just stay in the room until one of the scientists came to get them. After the next experiment, the scientist came in to find all the plates and toothpicks, piled in a neat stack at the center of the table.

Eventually, the researchers realized they had no choice but to crouch near to the room and interrupt the students after they had finished the dummy project they were working on, but before they could start trying to “help” the experimenters by cleaning up after themselves. Finally, they could start collecting data.


There must be some researchers reading this who have had experiments, especially experiments involving humans, veer off course in silly ways. Tell us how your experiment was hijacked by accident, misadventure, or well-meaning Minnesotans.

Top Image: Axel Kristinsson

[Source: Secrets From The Eating Lab.]




I'd laugh if I didn't know for a fact this was true. All my relatives live there and they are the nicest people, just be sure to ask for sodaPOP.

It's really hard, but every once in a while my Minnisoda accent just pops out and oh you betcha all the folks catch me on it wouldn't you know.