The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - SEVEN DAYS | EATING OUT - Aoife McEl­wain


Google “how many de­ci­sions do we make ev­ery day” and the num­ber 35,000 pops up re­peat­edly. How can that be? No won­der we’re all ex­hausted. In a 2006 re­search pa­per en­ti­tled Mind­less Eat­ing, Brian Wansink and Jef­fery Sobal of Cor­nell Univer­sity dis­cov­ered that peo­ple make an av­er­age of more than 200 de­ci­sions, both think­ing and un­think­ing, about food, ev­ery day.

In his 2011 book, Think­ing, Fast and Slow, au­thor and psy­chol­o­gist Daniel Kah­ne­man ex­plores the two sys­tems which help us make de­ci­sions, solve prob­lems and process the world around us, com­monly known as Sys­tem 1 and Sys­tem 2. Sys­tem 1 is fast, some­times de­scribed as think­ing with­out think­ing, while Sys­tem 2 is a more strate­gic and slower way of think­ing. Each have their place in our mod­ern world.

You can get along just fine with Sys­tem 1 when brush­ing your teeth, which doesn’t re­quire deep and pro­found soul-search­ing. But it’s un­de­ni­able that we some­times get our sys­tems mixed up, such as when we em­ploy Sys­tem 1 when mak­ing fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions (I NEED these ex­otic mini-aubergines that are ¤2 a pop, to hell with the con­se­quences) when per­haps a bit of deeper analysis might have served you bet­ter.

It could be ar­gued that choos­ing the right su­per­mar­ket queue re­quires Sys­tem 2 think­ing. Like a chess match, com­mit­ting to the right line to pay for your gro­ceries can have an im­pact on the rest of your day, ie your next moves. What if you get stuck be­hind some slow-coach who for­got to weigh their fruit and veg­eta- bles, or a shop­per who can’t re­mem­ber the pin code for their bank card? A domino ef­fect of late­ness and bad vibes could at­tach them­selves to the rest of your day, if you let it.

So why let it? Why not just go with the flow? Etorre’s Ob­ser­va­tion is a vari­a­tion of Mur­phy’s Law that states, sim­ply yet pro­foundly, “the other lines moves faster”. Taken lit­er­ally, it sums up the in­her­ent point­less­ness of over­think­ing your choice of su­per­mar­ket queue.

Yet at ev­ery shop­ping line I join, I can spot at least one shop­per ag­o­nis­ing over this de­ci­sion, when in fact we might be bet­ter off ap­ply­ing more strate­gic aware­ness be­fore we even get to the end of the process. Su­per­mar­kets aren’t just rooms full of stuff for us to buy. I mean, they are, but thanks to re­tail psy­chol­o­gists and su­per­mar­ket ar­chi­tects, they’re more than that. They’ve been care­fully de­signed to make you buy more. It’s like the su­per­mar­kets are in ca­hoots with the brands, who use their pack­ag­ing to scream out to you as you sashay through the care­fully cal­cu­lated aisles, bliss­fully un­aware that you are be­ing en­gi­neered into a spend­ing ma­chine.

When I’m shop­ping for my work as a food stylist, I am dili­gently fo­cused on my task and rarely get pulled off script. You’d think then that I’d be a pro at shop­ping for my­self, but it’s quite the op­po­site. I’m a su­per­mar­ket de­signer’s dream cus­tomer, a Sys­tem 1 thinker who jumps to­wards the im­me­di­ate re­wards of a well-de­signed cheese counter. Feta, ri­cotta, moz­zarella, Parme­san, goat cheese, ched­dar and Philadel­phia all came home with me on a re­cent shop­ping trip. The week’s ra­tion, I ra­tio­nalised to my­self, like a crazy per­son. This isn’t sen­si­ble weekly shop­ping and, with­out ap­ply­ing a more ra­tio­nal analysis be­fore stepping into a su­per­mar­ket, I’m done for, leav­ing my­self vul­ner­a­ble to the trap­pings of su­per­mar­ket psychology.

The psychology of su­per­mar­kets is fas­ci­nat­ing, and ef­fec­tive, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s some­thing that we as con­sumers are privy to reg­u­larly with­out even notic­ing. In 2014, Bon Ap­pétit writer Michael Y Park put to­gether a bril­liant two-part ar­ti­cle delv­ing into this very theme. He pulled to­gether the views of en­vi­ron­ment psy­chol­o­gists, ar­chi­tects and su­per­mar­ket de­sign­ers, nu­tri­tion­ists and ef­fi­ciency ex­perts to help build a pic­ture of the com­plex sys­tems at play when we go out for our gro­ceries.

There is the hur­dle of be­ing over­whelmed with choice, summed up by ef­fi­ciency ex­pert Gwyn­nae Byrd as be­ing “the big­gest en­emy to ef­fi­ciency” in shop­ping, and why we of­ten go in for two things and come out with 20. Ugh, I’ve been there a mil­lion times. The piece also goes into the psychology of free sam­ples and the iden­tity pol­i­tics of su­per­mar­kets.

Per­haps most fas­ci­nat­ing, it in­cludes the analysis of su­per­mar­ket lay­out by en­vi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor Paco Un­der­hill, who ex­plains that su­per­mar­ket de­sign hasn’t really changed in about 80 years.

Read­ing his ex­pla­na­tion on why you’ll of­ten find fruit and veg­eta­bles up front and to the right, fol­lowed by meat and seafood while dairy is usu­ally to the back and left, the deep­est part of the shop, will make you feel like you have just awo­ken from the ma­trix.

So, why is the dairy at the deep­est part of the stores, any­way? Un­der­hill says it’s be­cause al­most ev­ery­one who walks into a su­per­mar­ket has some sort of dairy on their shop­ping list, and if it’s in the deep­est part of the store, you have to walk past a lot of tan­ta­lis­ing goods to get to it. Un­less you’re ap­ply­ing a con­scious, mind­ful, Sys­tem 2 ap­proach to shop­ping, chances are by the time you get to the crème fraîche you’ll have a whole heap of unexpected and, dare I say, un­nec­es­sary, items in your trolly, as if you’ve been sleep-shop­ping.

To help you pre­pare for a more con­scious ap­proach to gro­cery shop­ping, have a good read of the full ar­ti­cle at­per­mar­ketpsych to un­der­stand the po­ten­tial trap­pings of your weekly shop. And, re­mem­ber, the grass is al­ways greener in the other queue.

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