April 14, 2009

Dept of WTF

Sometimes a study comes along that announces a conclusion s0 crazy-assed improbable that one's first reaction is: "that can't be right!"

But these kinds of studies present a personality test of sorts, don't they?

After your initial confusion, what do you conclude when you read a research finding that contradicts your expectations?

1. Hmm, interesting result. Maybe what I previously thought about this subject might be inaccurate! (Flexible, open-minded personality type).

2. That's a silly conclusion! There must be something wrong with this study. (Stubborn skeptical type).

3. There is something wrong with every single study ever conducted! I don't believe anything science ever came up with. Now let me get back to my TV program, the little people in the box in my living room are waiting for me. (Nutball type).

I am, not surprisingly, a Type 2 personality--a Stubborn Skeptic.

I have discovered, though, that there is a problem with being a Stubborn Skeptic and having a health blog, especially if you are a Cheapskate Stubborn Skeptic. Because my first reaction on seeing a study with a ridiculous result is to want to poke holes in the study's methodology. But often I can't actually read the study's methodology because you have to either be in academia or pay to get to it.

Pay? That's so not happening.

So instead, I have to work off a summary that gives little more than the conclusion. I have to just speculate as to why it was a dumb study! (Cue sad, sad, violin music.) (And actually, in this case, I'm not sure the study has even been published yet. But everyone else already reported on it last week, like the obviously gullible New York Times--because apparently not all health reporters are Stubbornly Skeptical they don't feel the need like I do to shred studies they do not like into bite-sized little pieces).


So help me out here, does this study on how offering salads affects restaurant menu choices sound like crazy talk to you guys too?

The study claims that offering healthy options on a restaurant menu "can induce some diners to eat less healthily than they otherwise would." More specifically, it says that diners were more likely to order french fries off a menu that had a salad than a menu that didn't include a salad as an option.

Wait... you see a salad on the menu, and even though you weren't going to order french fries, now you decide you need french fries?

Who are these people?

Here's all I could get on the methodology:

"In one study, college students were given one of two menus. One menu featured French fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato; the other included those same items as well as a salad. The French fries, widely perceived as the least healthful option, were three times as popular with students selecting from the menu that had the salad as they were with the other group."

And here's the researchers' explanation:

“When you consider the healthy option, you say, well, I could have that option... That lowers your guard, leading to self-indulgent behavior.”

So people are giving themselves credit for looking at the word "salad," and they feel like having seen reference to green leafy things, they now deserve a French fry reward?

Another totally weird result? "The diners most affected by the presence of a healthful item were those with the highest levels of self-control, as measured by a widely used test."

OK, so people with more self control are even more likely to translate the innocent word "salad" into a subliminal command: eat deep-fried potatoes?

This really is nutty.

Of course I totally get why people might not want to order the salad. Salads at places with limited junky menus tend to be terrible. They have iceberg lettuce that tastes like preservatives, limp pieces of carrot, shredded cabbage that's usually a bit brown around the edges, nasty dressing, and, if you're lucky, a couple of unripe cherry tomatoes.

But why would considering, but not ordering, this sad little salad make you want to ask for fries you were otherwise going to pass up? To me, saying "no" to even a crappy salad would make me feel guilty. This guilt would make me LESS likely to order fries, not more.

This study result is so completely contrary to how my brain operates that I refuse to believe other people could be so weird.

So with absolutely no information at all about how they conducted this study, I'll take some wild-ass guesses as to what's going on.

A few possibilities:

1. The study did not have a lot of funding and was done on a tiny group of undergraduate psychology students forced to be experimental subjects as a course requirement. They were offered fake-looking restaurant menus featuring a weird hypothetical choices of foods, and knew researchers were watching them. In deciding how to best screw up the results, the non-salad people had less clue what the study was even about, so they picked what they normally would order. The people with salad on the menu, however, guessed that the study had something to do with healthy restaurant choices. They knew to say "screw that" and chose French fries even if they didn't even want French fries.

2. Baruch College, where the experiment apparently took place, must have an unusally high percentage of students who were traumatized by produce at a tender age. When confronted with salads, post-traumatic vegetable syndrome induced these studentsto reach for french fries, a known comfort food.

3. Crabby McSlacker sometimes tends to overgeneralize and believes everyone thinks the way she does. Sometimes this is not actually true!

4. People are crazy.

What do you guys think, is Number 3 the most likely option? Does this result make any sense to you? Perhaps you have a better explanation for what's going on?


  1. Agreed that its a totally strange finding! and I think people are crazy...especially those researchers out there...


  2. Were they only allowed to order one thing? I could certainly imagine a scenario where students could order two things, and given the salad option, would order a salad and the fries.

    The logic being that one is good for you and the other bad so they balance each other out.

    Really, not enough info to make a judgment about their results, which do sound nutty.

  3. I think limiting the study to college students, who have notoriously bad diets, somewhat skews the results. I shudder to remember my diet in my early 20's--I got up to a full 210 pounds before I even CARED about healthy eating.

  4. That study makes no sense to me at all. I feel like we must be missing some pieces of information somewhere...

  5. Wait...so if they take healthy things off the menu, what else are you going to order anyway? Aren't you still going to eat bad, just in a different way? For example, when you take salad off the menu, and your choices are between chicken nuggets and french fries, are we really ahead here? Not the most solid deductive reasoning here. Nope.

  6. Well of COURSE no one is going to order the yucky salad in a fast food restaurant - everyone knows that no-one orders them, so the salads are always 3 days old....

    I totally agree with you about this study being skewed. College students....sheesh! :)

  7. i think sometimes the whole point of eating out is indulgence. think about it... how many people you know say.. i'm going to such n such place cuz their salads kick ass!! hardly EVER.

    i rarely eat at restaurants, but when i do, it's a guilty pleasure that i'm not going to look at an entire menu of options and say.. "oh just the salad please". gimme a break.

  8. I saw this study somewhere else yesterday and didn't think it made any sense there either. I can see why people would not choose the salad at all, but not why it would make them order fries that they didn't want before.

    Maybe it is just some undergrad students trying to mess up a study. That fits in my world, so I'm going with that.

  9. When you're out for food you are going to get a treat, not something healthy that you can have at home. Why pay for what you get for free?
    That said, my guess is if the college students were aware they were being studied they'd screw with it.

  10. If I'm remembering my college experience - maybe there was a price attached and fries were the cheapest thing on the menu.

  11. I think it may be answer #5 This study was requested by the French-fries Research Association Under Duress (FRAUD). They requested a conclusion be found that offering a choice of a salad and fries, the children of the executives going to Baruch College overwhelming selected the fries as their choice.

  12. Stats 101 (coincidentally, exactly what I'm teaching this morning). Correlation does not imply causation.

    This is absolutely crap statistics, and probably a great example of a spurious correlation.

  13. Hmmm. It did make sense to me. The closest Whole Foods to me is 120 miles. When I get a chance to go there, I look at all the nice healthy options and wish we had those options closer to home... and walk out with a sticky cinnamon roll or a fruit pastry, or something else fattening. Guess that makes me one of the crazees!

  14. I take it "Blech! I'd rather starve!" was not one of the options?

    I really want to know more about the methodology: it sure sounds like "People (including researchers) are crazy" would be the best answer.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  15. As someone who always participated in psych studies for the $15 or so they offered, I definitely ALWAYS tried to figure out what they were looking for. Were the people in this study actually served the food, and did they consume it? Give me a hypothetical menu, I would hypothetically choose the unhealthiest option because, hey, it's a fantasy, right?

    I'd be much more interested in finding out from McDonald's whether they've sold more orders of fries, percentage-wise, since they started offering salads and yogurt...

  16. Bizarre. Need more information. So one group had 3 options (nuggets, fries, and potato) and the other 4 (nuggets, fries, potato, and salad)? I'm with Nina and Tom I think. A case of manipulating the data to get the results you want. The bigger question is, why?

  17. Um, show me a college student who prefers salad over french fries and I'll...pass out from shock!!!!!

  18. Heh..."what do you conclude when you read a research finding that contradicts your expectations?"
    Happens ll the time...

    Honestly - with reports like this I wonder - how do they come to this conclusion? How do they gather inforamtion? How big is the sample group? Are the questions/data collection methods biased? How many menu options were there? Who paid for the study?...and lastly, how do *I* get funding to study something poofy like this. :)
    I could do this-pick me for funding!

  19. this study doesn't make much sense to me

  20. Sadly, I think #4 is a viable option.

  21. I think this study is right. Whenever I watch a real good educational documentary on public TV about the spotted owl, I feel I should reward myself by renting porn.

  22. I still can't get around it.
    Maybe taking the healthy option in consideration makes the diner weigh in all the options too much to the point where every aspect of food consumption is analyzed? I mean, I think the response could be plausible if there was, uhh, mention of price and how crappy the salad offering must have been or whatnot.

    I mean, imagine having a crappily-made caesar as opposed to a plate of fries? They're both calorically dense, but the other one must have been perceived as a whole lot nummier... oh hey, a bonus: potatoes are vegetables anyway, right?

  23. Maybe it's because the people with the most self control automatically scan the menu for the healthiest option, and when they see crap salad, they think, "Ew, this place obviously has nothing edible and healthy. Might as well go with what I like."

    But if they see (insert something that is less healthy than crap salad, but more healthy than fries since I can't think of anything edible at fast food restaurants), they think, "well, it's not perfect, but it's a better option."

  24. I agree with Nitmos. haha..very funny

    Then again, I think that younger, college aged people at more crap no matter where or when it's offered. It's not normal to eat a a salad when you can eat fries.

    They should redo the study at Marie Callendar's.

  25. I'm betting funding for this study was provided by the makers of fry vats.

  26. Of course this is crazy.

    The fact of the matter is that we know nothing about this study. And what that says to me is that the so-called journalist who wrote this story for the NY times did a crappy job (I actually read the article). He either should have included some info about the methodology, or, if he couldn't get that, waited until he had enough info to write a real article.

    No wonder the newspapers are dying!

    What's sad about this is that, while the big corporate newspapers are doing such a half-ass job, a lot of local newspapers that are doing a great job are dying, too. (This just happened in my own small town, although we have a brand new paper now, manned mostly by volunteers. I love my town!)

    I think I got totally side-tracked. Sorry about that.

  27. My head hurts from all this craziness!!! Who knows, maybe they are people that read all the information out there that tells us how bad restaurant salads are so they chose the French fries or maybe the college students just eat bad anyway & get their freshman 15 OR maybe this is just a bunch of you know what. Who pays them to do this stuff?

  28. You know the steak at a seafood restaurant is going to be bad - the salad at a fry house is going to be less than good also. Price will make a difference too - especially to college kids.

    This was just a lame ass study that had to show something for the funding they spent on something else.

  29. Of course college students would rather eat fries than a salad. I don't recall ever eating a salad in college except maybe out to dinner with my parents when they would visit or home on holidays. DUH!!!

  30. I'm going to expose WAY too much of my warped, neurotic brain here, but . . . that kind of makes sense to me.

    If I have a menu with nuggets, fries and potatoes on it, none of those are great choices. The potato isn't BAD, but choosing nuggets over a potato isn't going to trigger the "you're such a bad person/fat cow" voice in my head. It's all just food, and I can just eat whatever.

    With a salad on the menu, now I am forced (in my head) to make a choice between being "healthy/virtuous" or "unhealthy/bad." If I don't want the salad, I'm already being "bad" anyway, so I might as well go whole hog and eat the worst thing possible: the fries.

    Make no mistake, I will hate myself for it later, but I will eat those fries at the time.

    Along those same lines, if I feel like I SHOULD eat a salad (total internal conditioning works too), sometimes I'll eat fries out of straight-up rebellion.

    So that study does make some sense to me. Of course, it only makes sense if I assume that EVERYONE shares my particular neuroses. (Um, you do, don't you? ALL OF YOU?) ;)

  31. I'm a salad person, but love the rest of the menu as well. I don't really see how offering salads changes the choices that much. If you're going to order the full meal deal, and have that in your mind anyway, that's what you'll order! Crazy researchers!

  32. Yeah, no.1 definitely. Students = having a laugh. I knows it!

  33. Love your posts. :)

    I wonder if the menu had pictures.

    If I see a pic of a crappy ass salad and a baked potato with black spots on it, I think I'll pass and go for the fries. But in real life I'd walk out and go somewhere else.

    What kind of menu only offers potatoes and chicken nuggets any way? LOL

    Verdict is still out but I think I'll go with people are cazy. Except me of course. ;-)

  34. Bah! As a member of academia I wanted to triumphantly get a copy of the text for you. Unfortunately the study hasn't yet been published, so all I can offer is my guess at the psychology behind these findings.
    Maybe the exclusion of any healthy option was glaring enough for some students that they consciously tried to eat something healthier, recognizing that the restaurant certainly isn't enabling healthy eating. And when there is salad present, they're able to bargain with themselves because they don't feel trapped by the lack of caloric options. Kinda like when you eat at McDonalds and make a conscious effort to make good choices, but then treat yourself to a burger and fries at a sit-down restaurant.
    Whoa, I totally managed to sell myself on my own reasoning.
    Anyway, if you ever want a full text to a study, email me and I can see if it's available through my school.

  35. I vote for "people are crazy." I ALWAYS vote for that option;) That said, researchers seriously have the best jobs.

  36. Studies have really been crazy lately it seems. Some of the psychology rat stuff they try to human-up is silly. I also like the one where only 6 people in almost 5000 looked at the calorie values in restaurants. What I wondered was, how did the researchers stay awake to spot the 6?

  37. I'm actually trying to write a post that talks about 'control fatigue' and this study looks like it may tap into that. So while Marste thinks her reasoning is a bit warped, she may be on to something. Altho Nina, the stats professor, may be right, too. Still, I think the concept is worth exploring.

  38. This sounds a lot like the studies in a book I read last fall, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely:


    Ariely is obviously brilliant, but some of the base assumptions he made were so convoluted and out of touch with reality it was amazing.

    I think the premise of the study you ref might be that having seriously considered choosing the healthiest option makes a person feel justified in, and therefore content about, choosing the least healthy. They COULD HAVE ordered the salad, and they give themselves a sort of smug credit for that, offsetting a bad decision.

    And yeah, any studies that are conducted solely on college kids? Please.

    I often wonder whether people who study psychology do so not because they want to gain a greater understanding of how the mind works, but because they truly have NO IDEA and are hoping to eventually figure it out.

  39. That almost makes sense, but I don't agree with the doctor that thought making a different choice lowers your guard. The whole message that eating fries equals lower self-control, and salad equals higher self-control, that is screwy.

    I would probably not order the salad too, but for my own reasons. I wouldn't want to advertise my weight concerns to judgment from strangers by eating a salad in public in a fast food restaurant, so I would get the fries and blend in with what I perceive to be the popular option. Not for the control of myself, but to try to control the behavior of those I perceive are judging me. Salads are for freaks when it comes to fast food. I am so pathetic.

  40. Who can account for psychology, I guess? This reminds me of a study from a month or two back, I think the headline was "Exercise causes weight gain", or similar, and what was happening was that they were telling people to exercise, and people were supposedly getting stressed out and overeating instead. I don't quite remember the details, as it made no sense, and was a bit of a non-sequitor.

  41. What astounds me about the whole thing is that someone thought this was a worthwhile subject to study (what does it prove - salad shouldn't be included on menus???) And the next most amazing thing is somehow they managed to get funding for it.

  42. I agree that this study SUCKS. but from a psychological standpoint, this kind of makes sense, in that..

    You look at one menu, as a college student, you want FAST, easy food. You look at menu one and wonder what should I eat, I need something substantial, better go with the chicken nuggets or baked potato. French fries just don't cut it.

    Now, let's look at menu # 2. You have four options, you need something substantial ( which the salad is not) because we all know college students want the most food for their money. But they KNOW a salad is healthy and therefor healthy is on their mind. However they order french fries instead. why? because chicken nuggets are crap and they know it and french fries and a baked potato are both made of french fries, but french fries are easier to eat than a baked potato and in their minds healthier than chicken nuggets.

    We all know that french fries are junk but if you ask an "average" person they are always shocked when they find out that the only thing they're getting from them are trans fats. Most college students, think they're eating "veggies". ( even know potato's are a starch, they don't seem to know that either)

    Anyways. sorry to ramble but that's my two cents.

  43. and I meant french fries and baked potatos are both potato's.... sorry ><

  44. The findings are not as crazy as they might seem. Some people tend to push back when pushed. I know people who intentionally turned on all the lights and appliances in the house during earth hour. The only reason they did it was because people were trying to guilt them into complying, so that was their "screw you" response. Addicts of all stripes also seem (in my observation) to be at least initially more likely to increase their problem behaviour the more they are pushed about it.

  45. I really like broken up french fries IN my salad...but that doesn't help you, any, does it?


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