Lessons of the Popcorn Experiment

By Chris Crouch

“For anything to change, someone has to start acting differently.” I ran across that statement a couple of years ago in a book titled “Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard” by Chip and Dan Heath. I love such simple, clarifying statements.

The book goes on to talk about a very interesting study conducted by Brian Wansink, head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. Basically, people were invited to view a movie and asked to stick around afterward to answer some questions about the concession stand. They were offered free popcorn and drinks if they would help with the study. What they were not told was that the study was about eating habits, not the concession stand. To make a long story short, they were given very large, but different size, containers of popcorn. All the researchers really wanted to know was: Would people with bigger buckets eat more popcorn. As it turned out, they ate 53 percent more translating into 21 extra handfuls and 173 more calories. The experiment was replicated at different location with different movies. The results were consistent: Bigger container equals more eating.

We can draw two important conclusions from this study. If you want people to eat less, give them smaller containers. More importantly, when you want people to change, often there is a hard way and an easy to way to accomplish your goal.

For example, if you are a weight-loss coach, you can try to slug through the process of changing people’s attitude and thinking about food, or you can try to get them to exercise more, or you can try to get them to do a combination of the two – or you can just give them smaller containers of food. I would classify the former strategies as examples of the hard way and the latter strategy as an example of the easy way to get what you want.

I’ll let the health care professionals chew on these different strategies. But for the business leaders among you, the same alternatives are available. When you want people to change something at work, why not look for the easy to way to accomplish your goals? If possible, find a “change-the-container-size” way to embrace the change.

This kind of thinking is not too different from the kind of thinking that apparently solved an underdeveloped nation’s desire to improve air traffic access. They began by approaching aircraft manufactures and encouraging them to design planes that could easily land on their country’s short runways. However, someone quickly pointed out that pouring concrete was cheaper than designing new airplanes. So, after a few “duh” moments, the leaders of the country decided to pour a little more concrete and extend the runways. I don’t know if this story is true or not – but it is a good story.

If you want to change something in your organization, see if you can put your heads together and come up with an easy “popcorn-container-like” solution.

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through www.dmetraining.com.