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Blow Your Diet? Blame Captain Cupcake

New research finds anthropomorphizing products is an effective way to negate consumers’ self-control.
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Mr. Peanut. (Photo: Jack Pearce/Flickr)

Mr. Peanut. (Photo: Jack Pearce/Flickr)

He looks so delightfully distinguished, with his top hat and monocle. But if you’re trying to lose weight, beware: Mr. Peanut may be your worst enemy.

Along with any smiling sausages, talking tacos, or other anthropomorphized foods that catch your eye on a supermarket shelf, television commercial, or animated invitation to go to a cinema concession stand.

According to a paper just published in the Journal of Consumer Research, giving consumer products human qualities is a uniquely effective way of short-circuiting our self-control and prompting us to purchase them.

Imbuing such items with faces or personalities “decreases the extent to which consumers attribute the cause and responsibility for their consumption to themselves,” according to a research team led by Julia Hur of Northwestern University.

Hur and her colleagues provide evidence of this in six studies featuring South Korean and American participants. One featured 70 South Korean undergraduates who all called themselves dieters. As part of a purported “consumer produce evaluation task,” they were asked to evaluate a high-calorie cookie.

Giving consumer products human qualities is a uniquely effective way of short-circuiting our self-control and prompting us to purchase them.

Participants were shown a photograph of either a cookie given a human face and a name (“Mr. Cookie”) or a “regular round-shaped cookie.” The description underneath read either “I am Mr. Cookie, a new cookie product coming into the market. I have a delicious and rich flavor....”or “This is Cookie, a new cookie product coming into the market. It has a delicious and rich flavor....”

They then responded to a series of statements about how they felt about eating the treat, “considering the unhealthiness of cookie products.” Those who “met” the anthropomorphized cookie “were less likely to feel responsible and perceive control over their consumption decision,” the researchers report.

Hey, that little thing has a will of its own. Can I help it if it jumps into my mouth?

Another study used the same design, except that participants (44 South Korean undergraduates) were presented with an actual cookie and given the opportunity “to taste and consume” as much of it as they wished.

Those who examined the anthropomorphized cookie “felt less conflicted” about eating the fattening dessert. Not surprisingly, they also ate more of the cookie.

Another study found this dynamic is not unique to food. The 104 participants were American graduate students who began by writing about “either their academic goals or dieting goals.” They then completed a “consumer evaluation study” in which they rated a new electronic gadget—a “pocket TV.”

As with the cookie studies, half read a description in which the product was referred to as “I” (“I have a great screen display”), while the others read about “it” (“It only weighs 4.2 ounces”). They then indicated how much they would be willing to pay for the TV, and how conflicted they would feel about purchasing one.

The researchers found anthropomorphizing the product increased the students’ willingness to pay for it—but only if they had just written about their academic goals. Thinking of it as somehow “human” decreased the conflict the students felt between enjoying a new gadget and keeping up with their studies.

Hur and her colleagues explain these results by proposing that “the presence of another agent”—that is, the human-like cookie or television—“implies a diffusion of responsibility.”

If it’s just you and the cookie, it’s pretty clear who is responsible for the choice to eat. But if it’s you and Mr. Cookie—well, don’t you both share some blame?

As the researchers note, these findings contain some public policy implications, such as it’s probably unwise to use anthropomorphized cigarettes in anti-smoking campaigns. In a larger sense, their study is another reminder of how prone we are to find ways of evading responsibility for our own actions.

“When temptations come alive,” they conclude, “it’s harder to see their true colors.” Even if they’re the bright hues of those talking M&Ms.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.