Another Reason to Avoid Fast Food: Bad Financial Choices

If "Super Size Me" wasn't enough to turn you off to fast food, consider an intriguing new study by researchers at the University of Toronto. They find that consumers who have fast food on the brain become more impatient — in one case, too impatient to wait for a delayed, but larger monetary payoff.

The study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, primed participants by flashing fast food logos, including McDonald's golden arches and KFC's colonel, on a computer screen for milliseconds — too quickly to be consciously identified.

In three separate experiments, researchers Chen-Bo Zhong and Sanford DeVoe looked at how unconscious exposure to fast food symbols affected reading speed (no time constraint was involved); consumer choices; and financial decisions. People primed with fast-food images read faster, chose time-saving products such as two-in-one shampoo/conditioner over regular products; and showed a greater reluctance to save money.

Primed participants "were much more likely to accept a smaller payment now rather than waiting for a bigger payment in a week compared to those in the control condition," the researchers write. "Fast food seemed to have made people impatient in a manner that could put their economic interest at risk. … Thus, the way we eat has far reaching influences (often unconscious) on behaviors and choices unrelated to eating."

Clearly there's a question of whether fast food causes people to value time-efficiency, or whether the desire for time-efficiency led to the rise in fast food. But either way, it seems to intensify the focus on immediate gratification. The takeaway: Fast food can frustrate our best intentions when it comes to saving. And with a Big Mac, large fries and a large Coke clocking in at 1,350 calories, it's not doing much for our waistlines either.