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Skinny Sculptures Inspire Sensible Snacking

Visual cues can inhibit overeating.

By Tom Jacobs


Alberto Giacometti at work. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Whether or not you know the name Alberto Giacometti, you’re very likely familiar with the Swiss artist’s work. He is known for his elongated human forms, bronze sculptures so tall and slender they resemble surprisingly expressive stick figures.

According to one art-history website, “Giacometti’s art was thought to powerfully capture the tone of melancholy, alienation and loneliness” described by existentialist authors. But recently published research suggests his work also fulfills a different, rather more life-affirming function: It can counteract the impulse to overeat.

In the latest in a series of studies, Swiss researchers Aline Stampfli and Thomas Brunner present evidence that exposure to Giacometti’s work inhibits excessive eating. They also show this effect remains powerful even when a diner’s mind is preoccupied with unrelated information.

His “thin, human-like sculptures … could facilitate dieting by effortlessly reducing motivated eaters’ unhealthy food intake,” they write in the journal Food Quality and Preference. That assertion is even more promising than it sounds: By “motivated,” they mean “motivated to eat,” in that the artworks reduced consumption among those who found an unhealthy food particularly tasty.

Over the past four years, the researchers and their colleagues have published studies finding Giacometti’s sculptures reduced consumption of chocolate, and inspired vending-machine patrons to opt for healthy snack choices. This time around, their fattening food was potato chips.

There’s much to be said for a regimen of diet, exercise, and art appreciation.

The study featured 128 members of a “sensory consumer panel.” Participants had previously taken part in taste-testing sessions, and presumably believed this was a similar exercise.

Each sat in a small cubicle containing a computer. For about half the participants, the screen saver featured “three thin figures from Giacometti’s sculpture Piazza.” For the rest, the screen was blank.

They were first instructed to memorize either a two-digit or a 10-digit number. Afterwards, they were served 20 Pringles Original potato chips, and asked to indicate how much they enjoyed the snack. They were told they could eat as many of the chips as they desired.

“The participants who had been exposed to the Giacometti screen saver consumed less than the participants who had been exposed to the neutral white screen saver,” the researchers report.

Importantly, the effect was limited to those who reported they liked the chips — people who had an incentive to eat more. Seeing the skinny sculpture apparently lessened this impulse, or prompted them to ignore it.

The sculptures had this effect whether or not participants recalled noticing them — and whether they were keeping in their head the simple two-digit number, or the difficult 10-digit one. That latter finding is particularly significant, given that, in the real world, people often have many things on their mind as they sit down to eat. The results suggest the visual cue of the skinny sculptures does its job even under such conditions.

Stampfli and Brunner concede that eating decisions are based on a variety of factors, so there’s no guarantee a single visual cue will make a decisive difference. They also caution that “it is not known how long the activation of a mental concept of a distinct cue will persist.”

Nevertheless, the findings are promising, particularly in the wake of a much-publicized new study that found the winning contestants of NBC’s The Biggest Loser had gained back pretty much all of their lost weight within six years.

Clearly, if the obesity epidemic is to be controlled, creative strategies are needed — and visual cues of thinness may be part of the solution. There’s much to be said for a regimen of diet, exercise, and art appreciation.