I bought a new set of crockery last week. It called out to me as I cycled past Cancer Research in Hammersmith, and going in to investigate, I found I couldn’t resist its charms. It’s beautiful Staffordshire pottery, perfect in every way, except for the fact that the dinner plates (all eleven of them) seem abnormally small.
I was talking about the plates with Annie, later in the week, when she suggested that their small size was actually a good thing – they were ‘non-obesogenic’ in that they would discourage overeating. Now, I’m a big fan of overeating: I don’t think of myself as “full” until I’m in physical pain, but I suspect that, one day, years of over-indulgence will catch up with me and I’ll inflate like a bouncy castle over a matter of hours. Non-obesogenic plates sounded like they might have something to offer me, so with this in mind, I put my new purchases into immediate use and decided to do a little research into the effect they were likely to have on my eating habits.
There’s a fair amount of talk about smaller plates on the internet. One of the first things I came across was the Small Plate Movement which encourages Americans to switch from eating from an average 12” plate to a 10” plate for a month. Doing this for the main meal of the day, they suggest, will typically result in people serving themselves nearly a quarter fewer calories, without noticing that the amount they are eating is any smaller. They calculate that, “if a typical dinner has 800 calories, a smaller plate would lead to a weight loss of around 18 pounds per year for an average size adult”.
A recent report from the Institute for Government gives a clue to why this might be. It details nine robust influences on human behaviour and change, spelling out the acronym “Mindspace” (Messenger, Incentives, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitments, and Ego). Several of these apply to the subject of plate size, but the report is particularly relevant when it discusses ‘priming’.
‘Mindspace’ cites a study by Wansink and Kim, in which, “moviegoers ate 45% more popcorn when it was given to them in a 240g container than a 120g container [while] even when the popcorn was stale, the larger container made them eat 33.6% more.” In other words, bigger plates, or bigger containers ‘prime’ us to overeat, even when we aren’t hungry and the food isn’t good.
Wansink is the author of a book called Mindless Eating, which investigates “why we eat like we do… [and] how we can make our environment work for us rather than against us”. He points out that, “The surface area of the average dinner plate has increased 36% since 1960,” and that most people eat an average of 92% of what they serve themselves. Most of us are intensively institutionalised to clear our plates at every meal, both by our parents and by gorgon-esque school dinner ladies. Wansink argues that this norm, combined with the ‘priming’ effect of large dinner plates, conspires to “suggest to us that it is more appropriate, typical, reasonable, and normal to serve and to eat more food”.
Thinking about the apparently simple behaviour change that results from changing the ‘prime’ has me trying to see how this idea could be extended. Changing the size of your plate requires an initial conscious decision, but from then on the priming effect of the smaller plate works subconsciously to modify your daily behaviour. The model seems so simple and effective, yet it is difficult to think of equivalent primes for other forms of unsustainable consumption.
We are not just living in an obesogenic environment, but one which constantly primes us to consume more and more of every kind of resource: from supermarket shelves, overstocked to create what Tristram Stuart refers to as “the impression of infinite abundance”, to invisible wireless broadband which floats constantly around our flats, inviting us to power up and log on at the slightest pique of curiosity about, for example, the effects of plate size on eating behaviour. We are primed to expect and to consume far more than we really need, so what to our small-plate using grandparents would have seemed like sufficient (whether it be a slice of cake or a holiday in Blackpool) now looks slightly lost on the vastly upscaled plate of our expectations.
If we are to “make our environment work for us rather than against us” as Wansink suggests, perhaps we need to find equivalent ‘plates’ to adjust our primes on how much electricity, gas, petrol or even overseas flights it is appropriate for us to consume. Sending all of your four-way plug socket adapters to the WEEE recycling, perhaps, or nobbling the petrol gauges on our cars. All suggestions welcome.