"Will Work For Food"

Friday, December 15, 2006

By Wray Herbert

The words are often scrawled on a piece of cardboard and always painful to read, because they remind us of life’s fragility. They also pluck a deep chord in our psyche, because they reduce life to our most fundamental needs. After all, the sentiment behind those poignant words can be traced all the way back to the African
savannahs, to a time when our earliest ancestors did indeed do just that. In the eons before minimum wages and credit cards and 401-Ks, the closest thing to earnings and savings was bounty from the hunt. Food was more than nourishment; it was an asset.

Given this deep and ancient connection, it’s not implausible to think that food and money might still be tightly intertwined in our psychology, even deep-wired in our neurons. And in fact, behavioral scientists are very interested in the links between scarcity and hunger and gluttony on the one hand, and frugality and charity and stinginess on the other. Put simply: Could comfort food translate into feelings of financial security? Might there be a link between satiety and generosity? Can we literally be hungry for money?

Psychologists at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium decided to explore this dynamic in the laboratory. Barbara Briers and her colleagues did a series of three experiments designed to tease apart the connections between nourishment and personal finances. In the first, they deprived some people of food for four hours, long enough that they wouldn’t be starving but they would almost certainly have food on their mind. Others ate as usual. Then they put all of them in a real-life simulation where they were asked to donate to one of several causes. Those with the growling stomachs consistently gave less money to charity, suggesting that when people sense scarcity in one domain, they conserve resources in another. Put another way, people with physical cravings are in no mood to be magnanimous.

In the second study, Briers actually let the participants eat as usual, but with some she triggered their appetites by wafting the scent of baked brownies into the lab. Then they played a computer game that, like the earlier simulation, tested their generosity. Again, those with food on their minds were less willing to part with their cash. Interestingly, in this study none of the participants was actually hungry, meaning that the desire for brownies alone was powerful enough to make them into tightwads.

That’s pretty convincing evidence. But the psychologists decided to look at it the other way around. That is, they wanted to see if a heightened desire for money affected how much people ate. They had participants fantasize about winning the lottery, but some imagined winning big (25,000 euros) while the rest thought about a modest prize (25 euros). The researchers wanted the more outlandish fantasy to increase desire for money, so they had the winners further fantasize about what this imaginary windfall would buy them—sports cars, stereos, and so forth. They basically made some of the participants greedy and not others.

Then they had all the participants participate in a taste test of two kinds of M&Ms, although unbeknownst to them the scientists were actually measuring how much they ate. And yes, the greedy people scarfed down significantly more candy. It appears that the desire to accumulate money (and stuff) is a modern version of the ancient adaptation to accumulate calories. (For what it’s worth, people who were watching their weight did not break their diets, even if they were salivating for a large-screen TV. So perhaps we are not complete slaves to our evolutionary instincts. )

This final experiment is consistent with a classic study from the 1940s. In that study, poor kids consistently overestimated the size of coins, while rich kids did not. The new findings are also consistent with earlier research showing that poor men prefer heavier women. With both the poor kids and the poor men, financial insecurity was powerful enough to distort something as fundamental as perception.

The Belgian scientists (who report all three studies in the November issue of Psychological Science) speculate that all of this is wired into the brain. Both food and money are rewards, they give pleasure, and it’s possible that both (and perhaps other rewards as well) are processed in the same clusters of neurons devoted to savoring rewards.

Whatever the underlying neurology, the findings could help explain a phenomenon that has long perplexed public health officials: the high prevalence of life-threatening obesity among society’s most disadvantaged. It seems counterintuitive that those with the least money should be eating the most. But it may be, Briers suggests, that material success has become so important that when people fail in their quest for money, they get frustrated and their brains switch between two intertwined rewards. In effect, they're reverting back to a primitive state, when high-calorie food was the common currency. So those living hand to mouth do indeed work for food, but unhappily just not nutritious food.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:29 PM


At 8:29 AM , Blogger Flimsy Sanity said...

Interesting. I thought the reason poor people tended to be fat was that they gravitated to starchy foods the "stayed with you longer" and were cheaper - the breads, potatoes, etc rather than more expensive salads, meats and fruits.


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