Sitting in front of you are two milkshakes in a bottle. On the label of one is a picture of a delicious looking ice cream sundae with the words “decadence you deserve” written over the top. The nutrition label confirms your suspicions, the indulgent shake delivers a whopping 620 calories. The “sensi shake” sitting next to it doesn’t look as appealing. It’s immediately recognizable that it’s a nutrition shake, “all the taste without the guilt”—a promise that is surely incorrect. The label confirms your hunch, 140 calories in this sensible shake.
If we drank the indulgent shake, we might expect to feel fuller and more satiated than if we drank the sensible alternative. In a study out of Yale, that’s exactly what researchers found. Drinking a calorie bomb of a milkshake makes us feel much fuller. And when they dug even deeper to our biological reaction, the hormone that helps regulate our satiety followed the expected reaction. When subjects drank the indulgent shake, the hunger hormone ghrelin plummeted, signaling that the body was full and we didn’t need to search out for more calories. Everything went according to plan, except for one problem. Both shakes were the exact same, containing 380 calories. The labels were all that was different.
The same phenomenon occurred when researchers labeled pasta as healthy or hearty. And it’s not just our hormonal response that is impacted. When scientists presented wine bottles that had the exact same wines, but were labeled as either $90 or $10 bottles, subjects felt more pleasure when drinking the expensive type. And the difference showed up in their brain. Using fMRI technology to scan their brains, researchers found more activity in an area of the brain related to pleasure when the $90 bottle was drunk.
We’re used to thinking of our biological responses as simple stimulus-response systems. We drink a shake and it’s the contents of that shake that cause our body to release all sorts of hormones. But what we are increasingly learning is that our body “cheats.” It doesn’t wait until the contents of our food reach our stomach to decide the hormonal and behavioral response. Instead, it utilizes context to predict what sort of response it will need. In the case of the switched food label, the information altered our predictions. We expect that a $90 wine should taste better, so our brain anticipated that. It’s not just food labels that make a difference. Our psychological state, our mindsets, and the environment around us all influence whether we will find the proverbial shakes in our lives filling or not. Simply put, how we see the world shapes how we react to it.
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