This year marks a distinct influx of the top fast food burger chains into the Indian market. While the speed of getting food on the run may take on a distinct Indian flavor (e.g., 75% of burgers sold in India are vegetarian) that’s healthier for your body than the standard Western fair, you should be concerned about how fast food can affect your psychological health.
From its production to its consumption, fast food both embodies and symbolizes speed and instant gratification. Through extensive franchising and large advertising budgets, fast-food organizations shape many of the cues in the everyday environment. While the proliferation of fast food is undoubtedly driven by the market’s response to our demand for speed and instant gratification, the prevalence of fast food in daily life may play a role in exacerbating impatience. This is a potentially ironic consequence, as the capacity of fast food to save time would appear to be an unambiguous good. However, if the speed and instant gratification associated with fast food pushes people to be even more impatient, then it may undermine well-being in domains where the pleasure of the activities lie in savoring them or when well-being entails undertaking tasks that require the delay of gratification.
In a series of papers, my collaborators at the Rotman School of Management, Julian House, Chen-Bo Zhong, and I have begun to examine some potential manifestation of impatience that exposure to fast food might incite. Our initial approach to this was to experimentally prompt participants with reminders of fast food, such as viewing pictures of fast-food logos or having them recall recent fast-food restaurant experiences. Across, a variety of different studies we observed that fast food spurred participants to hurry through reading a paragraph describing their city, express a greater desire for time-saving products, exhibit a diminished ability to savor (happiness derived from gazing at pictures of natural beauty or the ability to enjoy listening to beautiful opera duet), and save for tomorrow (preferring an immediate financial reward over a larger, delayed one). We interpret these results as due to goals associated with fast food being activated and then soliciting corresponding behaviors.
These experimental findings are interesting in their own right, but that our associations with fast food can induce greater impatience is especially important to consider because of their pervasiveness in modern day environment and exposure to them is often unbidden as people go about their everyday life. So, we were prodded by these experimental findings to consider whether the prevalence of fast-food restaurants in neighborhoods might undercut individuals’ well-being. There’s a long tradition in the epidemiology literature attesting to a link between the prevalence of fast-food restaurants in our neighborhoods and obesity, even when controlling for individual and economic factors. While the consequences of fast food (especially of the meat variety) for health seem quite obvious, we wondered what these same methods might reveal regarding impatience. We took a page from the epidemiology method book to see whether the prevalence of fast-food restaurants in in neighborhoods (ratio of fast-food restaurants to sit-down restaurants at the zip code level) would be associated with diminished tendencies to savor and save.
In one study, we simply administered measure of people’s tendency to savoring a variety of realistic, enjoyable experiences (e.g., discovering a beautiful waterfall on a hike) to a set of respondents throughout the US. Based upon their zip code, we linked participants’ responses to objective information from the most recent US Economic Census on the concentration of fast-food restaurants (ratio of fast food to sit-down restaurants). We found that the greater the concentration of fast food in the neighborhood was negatively associated with respondents’ propensity to savor controlling for economic factors of the individual and the neighborhood.
In order to see whether there might be converging evidence for the prevalence of fast food on financial impatience, we obtained the geocode data from respondents in a large nationally representative data set maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that included a measure of how much more money is demanded to delay getting $1000 by one month. The more people demand to delay receiving the reward is a standard measure of how financial impatient they are. The correlation is small and similar to the size of the association we observed with savoring, but was robust when we control for a whole host of other variables both at the neighborhood level (median household income and population) and individual level (ethnicity, education, income, and net worth).
This corroborating evidence was reassuring, but we still had the concern that these relationships could be driven by impatient people choosing to live in neighborhoods that have a higher concentration of fast food restaurants. To address this concern, we turned to a nationally representative panel data were we could follow US households over a decade long period and see whether changes in the prevalence of fast food was associated with changes in their savings. Indeed, we found a robust relationship within households over time between the prevalence of fast-food restaurants in their neighborhood and lower savings (using fixed effects to control for all the stable things associated with that household such as their ethnic background, and underlying static individual characteristics as well as other relevant economic factors). Now it’s always tricky to draw causal conclusions from such survey data, even when it’s longitudinal—so caution is warranted. But when you look at these results in the contexts of the experimental data, it suggests that the sudden influx of fast-food burger restaurants has the potential to have a worry some influence on both financial and emotional well-being.
What, if anything, you can you about this? Well, one important step you can take to nudge yourself toward being more patient would be to live in a neighborhood that doesn’t constantly bombard you with reminders of instant gratification.
While there’s no doubt that society has become more impatient and that there are many factors that have contributed to it, thinking more explicitly about the subtle cues in our everyday living environment may be a fruitful way for us combat the impulse for speed and instant gratification that can impede our propensity to smell the preverbal roses or erode our ability to make choices that have our long term economic interests in mind. From a policy perspective, we should seek to expand our net of concern about the potential negative influence of fast food to be broader than just physical health to include our emotional and financial well-being. From a personal perspective, you might do your body, mind, and pocketbook a favor when you plan your next move by checking to see that the number of sit-down restaurants out numbers the number of fast food restaurants. It’s at least food for thought!
Sanford DeVoe is a an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management
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[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]