People who reported being regular movie popcorn-eaters ate the same amount of popcorn whether it was stale or not, researchers found. But people who said they didn't usually eat popcorn at movies ate significantly less stale popcorn than fresh because it didn't taste as good, according to the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin study. The effect held true even after researchers took hunger into account.
Then, researchers sat study participants down in a meeting room. They did the same popcorn experiment -- giving stale popcorn to some, and fresh popcorn to others. However, the regular popcorn-eaters ate far less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn in this environment, according to the study.
"The results show just how powerful our environment can be in triggering unhealthy behavior," study researcher David Neal, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, said in a statement. "Sometimes willpower and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead."
Researchers also had moviegoers eat fresh and stale popcorn with their dominant and non-dominant hands. When the moviegoers were using their non-dominant hand, they ate less stale popcorn than fresh, even for those who considered themselves frequent popcorn-eaters, the study found. That's likely because eating with their non-dominant hands caused people to pay attention to what they were eating, researchers said.
Similarly, consumer psychologist Dr. Brian Wansick found that people ate 45 percent more popcorn -- even if it was stale, and not fresh -- if they ate out of big-size containers instead of regular sized ones, Fox News reported. That study was presented earlier this year at the American Psychological Association's annual convention.
So what's a person to do to combat mindless eating? Wansick, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," told WebMD that it helps if you eat off smaller plates and move tempting food -- like candy -- to places out of eye-level.
In addition, don't eat in front of the TV and instead eat in the kitchen or dining room to minimize mindless eating, he told WebMD.
"These simple strategies are far more likely to succeed than willpower alone," Wansink told Medical News Today. "It's easier to change your environment than to change your mind."