Like it or not, the golden arches of McDonalds are one of the most easily recognised icons of the modern world. The culture they represent is one of instant gratification and saved time, of ready-made food that can be bought cheaply and eaten immediately. Many studies have looked at the effects of these foods on our waistlines, but their symbols and brands are such a pervasive part of our lives that you’d expect them to influence the way we think too.
And so they do – Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe have found that fast food can actually induce haste and impatience, in ways that have nothing to do with eating. They showed that subliminal exposure to fast food symbols, such as McDonalds’ golden arches, can actually increase people’s reading speed. Just thinking about these foods can boost our preferences for time-saving goods and even nudge us towards financial decisions that value immediate gains over future returns. Fast food, it seems, is very appropriately named.
Zhong and DeVoe asked 57 students to stare at the centre of a computer screen while ignoring a stream of objects flashing past in the corners. For some of the students, these flashes included the logos of McDonald’s, KFC, Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King and Wendy’s, all appearing for just 12 milliseconds. We can’t consciously recognise images that appear this quickly and, indeed, none of the students said that they saw anything other than blocks of colour.
The students were then asked to read out a 320-word description of Toronto and those who had subconsciously seen the fast food logos were faster. Even though they had no time limit, they whizzed through the text in just 70 seconds. The other students, who were shown blocks of colours in place of the logos, took a more leisurely 84 seconds.