Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

A short communication in the International Journal of Obesity caught my eye this morning. A research group from Cornell explored some seemingly-obvious questions: Do people eat food just because its there, and will they eat more if the food is close in proximity and unlimited in supply? And one not so obvious: Do we underestimate how much we eat when the food is closer (the idle munching effect)? (More below the fold!)

The team recorded the chocolate consuption of 40 adult secretaries for 4 weeks. They manipulated proximity by placing the chocolates on the desk of the participant or 2 meters away, and visibility was manipulated by making the dish either transparent or opaque. The supply of chocolate was unlimited; it was filled every evening.

The results showed that both placement and visibility mattered.


According to their results, the secretaries ate the most chocolates when the bowl was on their desk and clear and ate the least chocolates when the bowl was far and opaque. In addition, there was a significant difference between their ability to estimate how many candies they had eaten when the dish was on their desk, opaque or not. Subjects had a tendancy to overestimate candies eaten when the dish was far, and to underestimate when the dish was near.

“This has important implications for people who are trying to be accurate in monitoring and controlling their intake of food. These results underscore that people need to take a food’s visibility and proximity into account when they try and estimate their prior consumption of it. In general, a food that is less proximate to consume – say cookies in the cupboard vs those on the counter – may be over-consumed relative to what one might think (or recall).”


  1. #1 Janne
    July 17, 2006

    It’s worth checking out Stanley Schacter’s classic paper “Some extraordinary facts about obese humans and rats” ( on the same subject, not the least because it is possibly the funniest serious paper I have had the pleasure to read. He indicates that obese and normal-weight people (and rats) in fact behave differently, with obese individuals eating more than normal-weight individuals when the food (roast-beef sandwiches) is clearly visible and close at hand, but eat _less_ than normal-weight individuals when the food is out of sight.

  2. #2 jaysonb
    July 17, 2006

    “….with obese individuals eating more than normal-weight individuals when the food (roast-beef sandwiches) is clearly visible and close at hand, but eat _less_ than normal-weight individuals when the food is out of sight.”

    so, given this piece of information and the insights made in the new research, we can pretty much dispel the myth of hot secretaries.

    Gentlemen, disintegrate your fantasies.

  3. #3 Lab Cat
    July 17, 2006

    So hiding the chocolate in your desk is a dieting technique.

  4. #4 Shelley Batts
    July 17, 2006

    Janne- thanks for the hilarious paper! A serious topic, but the idea of hiding the roast beef is funny on many levels. 🙂

    JaysonB- To maintain a hot secretary, cleearly you must have no candy in sight.

    Lab Cat- I imagine the best dieting tip is to have no candy at all, but that seems to be the next best thing. And not to open your desk.

  5. #5 incitatus
    July 17, 2006

    That is cool. Almost as exciting as my study on refrigerator-opening behaviour in male Homo sapiens, where I showed that it really doesn’t matter if the subject knows the refrigerator is empty, he will still open it 2.6 times within the first half-hour of arriving home from work, and stare into it expectantly. Nature kicked it back for low sample numbers. Bastards. Those error bars were tight.

  6. #6 Dan R.
    July 17, 2006

    As an Obese american, I completely agree.

    If I leave my oatmeal raisen bars (the only sweet I allow myself to buy in bulk) in the car trunk, I eat 1 every day or so.

    In the house, and I’ve been known to eat 6-7 in a day.

    Hence I no longer buy sweets of any sort. Even “good sweets” like frozen yoghurt tend to disseappear too quickely. I do better buying the high fat, high calorie individual serve sweets when I really want something. A high calorie sweet a few times per month is better than a whole bunch of medium calorie sweets.

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