When you’re staring at a menu mulling between the French fries you want and the grilled veggies you know you should get, what subconscious factors lead you to your ultimate decision?
Retail strategists are constantly investigating how the atmosphere in a shop or restaurant influences what or how much you buy. Years of research have proven that ambient music has a powerful effect on customer behavior, but in regards to food, past investigations have focused solely on differences between certain types of music.
Now, an incredibly thorough study by American and Swedish marketing researchers shows that the volume of the ambient music playing also makes a significant difference – and louder environments appear to drive indulgent decisions.
Writing in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, the team detail how stress and excitement are known to cause humans to seek out high-sugar and high-fat foods because digesting them slows the activity of our ramped-up nervous systems. And given the unsurprising connections between increasing sound volume and physiological stress, and quiet music and relaxation, it makes sense that situations with loud ambient music would lead people to pick unhealthy food options, and vice versa.
But a logical connection is not enough. So, to test this hypothesis, the team conducted a series of experiments comparing choices made when music was played at either 55 or 70 decibels. (For reference, the sound of a vacuum cleaner is about 70 decibels and a quiet conversation is about 50.)
In two real-world assessments, a multi-genre mix was played in both a grocery store and a café at the low level for a whole day and then the high level for an entire day later in the week. Receipts from both days proved that a lower proportion of junk food was purchased on the low-volume day.
The five laboratory-based experiments asked student volunteers who were unaware of the music’s relevance to rate which they would prefer out of two opposite food choices (e.g. pizza vs salad). Excluding the instances where the subjects were specifically “primed” to feel calm by first writing an essay about a time that they were relaxed, more subjects selected unhealthy treats when exposed to the loud music, be it classical or instrumental heavy metal.
The authors conclude that the findings are relevant to pretty much everyone.
“For instance, a store that sells mostly healthy foods or wants to promote the sale of high margin healthy items might keep the volume low, while a fast food restaurant might want to turn up the volume,” they wrote. Whereas customers hoping to avoid temptation should choose dining locations accordingly, or perhaps meditate a bit beforehand.
But before you blame your second order of pub fries on the loud jukebox, keep in mind that the researchers did not explore the potentially enormous impact of alcohol.