Exposure to Fast Food Impedes Happiness, Researchers

Savor the moment.
That don’t call it the unhappy meal for nothing.

Or, wait…

What we have here is yet another instance of scientists claiming to have done something they did not do. In this case, they said they measured “exposure” to fast food, and they developed great wads of theory to explain this exposure. Yet never once was exposure measured. This is what I have elsewhere called the epidemiologist fallacy, a combination of the ecological fallacy and the “If we didn’t commit the ecological fallacy, then we couldn’t do anything” fallacy.

In Social Psychological and Personality Science Julian House and two others published “Too Impatient to Smell the Roses: Exposure to Fast Food Impedes Happiness” which asked whether “exposure to the ultimate symbols of an impatience culture—fast food—undermines people’s ability to experience happiness from savoring pleasurable experiences.”

Guess what they said.

Well, this: “eating involves food preparation and communal dinning, making it a collective, ritualistic event where communities bond rather than merely intake nutrition.” Who knew?

In one of their intensive studies, House discovered “that the concentration of fast-food restaurants in individuals’ neighborhoods predicted their tendencies to savor.” Some 280 folks were recruited on-line and paid a buck to fill in a questionnaire—excuse me, a validated instrument. This is a scientific term meaning “questionnaire.”

The specific questionnaire was “the positive emotion portion of the Emotion Regulation Profile-Revised” which measures people’s “tendencies to savor” and also to “dampen…emotional responses to enjoyable experiences”. One question was (I could only find the questions in French), “Vous laissez tous vos sens s’imprégner de l’endroit afin de savourer pleinement cet instant” which, roughly translated, is “You like to soak up the moment.” Now how can a question like that not be scientific?

The participants also entered their home zip codes, from which “the number of establishments listed under the North American Industry Classification System code for fast-food restaurants” was divided “by the number of full-service restaurants” in that zip code. Because, obviously, people have no choice but to go to these establishments in their own zip code districts.

Turns out that the fast-food ratio was statistically associated with answers on the savoring questionnaire, but negatively (a small correlation coefficient). A wee p-value confirmed this statistical relationship.

The authors labeled this result an “intriguing relationship”. They also authoritatively state “The essence of fast food is not what you eat (e.g., tacos, pizza, etc.), but how you eat it.” A chicken wing is equivalent to a garden salad if you eat it with a plastic fork, apparently.

More science from the conclusion: “undermining people’s ability to derive pleasure from everyday joys could exert a significant long-term negative effect on people’s experienced happiness.” Also: “we find that the exposure to fast-food symbols reduced people’s tendency to savor”.

Now that is a strange thing to say considering that the authors did not measure exposure to fast-food “symbols,” or to exposure to fast-food in any form. But, hey, if we required scientists to actually do what they say they do, then nothing would ever get done. Science would slow to a crawl and we wouldn’t have published so many intriguing results and theories.


Thanks to the Carolina Cowboy for alerting us to this study. Note to that gentleman: every email I try to send you bounces back.


  1. Sheri

    I’m waiting for the study that looks at casual sex and hooking up as damaging to long-term happiness. After all, virtually the same arguments apply to sex as food–especially the observation that both are meant to be savored. If fast food yields a wee p value, “fast sex” should do the same.

  2. DAV

    yet another instance of scientists

    When did Psychology become a science?

    “exposure to the ultimate symbols of an impatience culture—fast food—undermines people’s ability to experience happiness from savoring pleasurable experiences.”

    Which, oddly, is what they themselves have set out to do.

    A chicken wing is equivalent to a garden salad if you eat it with a plastic fork

    Because it’s very hard to eat with a plastic fork so the energy expended outweighs the energy input. Besides, when you do manage to use it successfully you can “savor the moment” of success.


    Sturgeon’s Law still holds.

  3. DAV

    I see the link to the California Cowboy is to Twitter. Proposed subject for a new study: “Are Tweets the Internet Equivalent of Fast Food?”

  4. Rod Montgomery

    Vocabulary Expansion:
    “eating involves food preparation and communal dinning…” led to

    din, v. dinned, din·ning, dins
    1. To stun with deafening noise.
    2. To instill by wearying repetition: dinned the Latin conjugations into the students’ heads.
    To make a loud noise.

    Off Topic, h/t Mike Flynn:

    Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

  5. Scotian

    I wonder what kind of communal, savour the moment, dining they had in mind? Maybe it is the following:


    But then again a better example of the dining of the collective is seen here:


    Of course, I’m sure everyone is aware that this is just another mindless attack on a successful business that caters to the hoi polloi. A tea room that served organic food would not be critiqued, especially if it was in danger of going out of business due to a lack of refined patrons. I suppose the nutrition claims have worn thin so that a new approach is necessary. I like their just so attempt to explain why their conclusion is reasonable. Such pomposity is always in need of puncturing.

    An aside: a comment of mime in a previous article seems to have gone missing and may be in the spam filter. This seems to happen on occasion and there isn’t even any swearing.

  6. Gary

    Any research on exposure to pseudo-science on blogs?

  7. Paddy O'Furniture

    I hate fast food and I hate eating with other people or having other people eat with me… perhaps I’m the outlier? Or maybe I’m the evil little tick that moved the coefficient so (in)significantly?

  8. Ye Olde Statisician

    An aside: a comment of mime in a previous article seems to have gone missing

    Since mimes are silent, their comments naturally go missing. G,D&R

  9. Scotian

    It’s on Mike.

  10. Ray

    So what’s new? Remember the famous EPA study in which they claimed that exposure to secondhand smoke caused cancer but they never measured any exposure. People were just asked about their exposure. They filled out one of those validated instruments.

  11. Tom

    >>Fast Food Impedes Happiness

    The real reason you should not take your girlfriend on a date to McDonalds!

  12. William I do follow you on Twitter, mayhaps the address got confused. In any case I use my IP address above.

  13. Sheri

    Gary–Climate science says too much exposure to “denier” blogs is hazardous to their scientific and economic health. You can pick the side you want to call “pseudo”. There’s probably research from both directions.

  14. Briggs

    Mark Webster,



    There’s no telling what the spam filter will do. Your comment is restored.

  15. Katie

    Someone I know was recently traveling through the hinterlands of this fair United States, and inquired (at the Subway sandwich shop) about the local “fine dining” establishments, and was told that the “gourmet” places like Perkins and Cracker Barrel were 10 miles up the road. I personally enjoy a stop at Perkins, but it only happens about once a decade.

  16. Milton Hathaway

    Wow, people spent all that time filling out a questionnaire for only a dollar?

    I admit that I take a lot of online surveys. If the outfit running the survey is identified, and I happen to like them, I’ll sometimes fill out the survey for free and even answer it honestly. But in general, I need a reward, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the survey. (For $20, my personal non-prize-drawing best, I will spend some time on a survey, and even tailor my answers to maximize the chances they’ll ask me to take another survey in the future.)

    But for a buck, the key is to get in and out fast. If survey asks you to select one or more things from a list, expect follow-up questions for each item. Therefore pick only one. If you pick zero items, the survey often ends right there; but this is still a good approach for ‘one-shot’ surveys with little hope for any follow-up reward.

    If you want to keep getting surveys, it pays to take a few seconds to figure out who commissioned the survey and tailer your answers for them. Often this can only be figured out late in the survey, but if there’s a ‘back’ button you can go back and fix a previous answer.

    The most difficult surveys are the ones that suck you in with short questions, then start throwing large grids at you to fill in. If you bail on the survey, not only do they get your early answers for free, but you risk getting fewer survey opportunities in the future. This is where my experience with multiple-guess tests in college really pays off, to fill in the grids rapidly while maintaining a thoughtful appearance.

    Don’t be afraid to experiment with leaving questions blank. Sometimes a survey prevents forward progress, but often they let you slide. Some judicious use of unanswered questions or “don’t know” or “not applicable” not only saves valuable time, it increases the impression of honesty.

    Since privacy is important, create an alter ego or two with a specific past, and stick to it from survey to survey – if your memory is bad like mine, write stuff down, such as birthdays and life experiences. While your younger alter ego will tend to get more survey opportunities, your older alter ego will tend to get higher reward surveys.

    Be gentle with your alter egos – they take time to create and nuture. But if your hit rate with an alter ego is falling, it’s better to just bite the bullet and kill it off quickly, making room for a new one.

    While you won’t get rich taking surveys, it can be a rewarding use of your time, with the knowledge that your are doing your bit to improve the human condition and make life just a little bit better for everyone.

  17. Adam Gallon

    All peer-revued and thus must be incorporated into legislation immediately. This shows that fast-food must be taxed and tax-breaks given to establishments with Mitchelin Stars!

  18. Katie, Monday evening I ate at Cracker Barrel and it was mighty fine dining indeed!

    I certainly savored the country-fried steak, turnip greens, macaroni & cheese, and baked apples.

    However, the meal was made more savory by my female company, who joined me in a far-ranging conversation about genetics and what-not.

    There is at least one denizen of this site who can attest to my enthusiasm as a trencherman as I can attest to his.

    As for the dubious publication, one should recall that savor is in the mouth of the ingestor.


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