How food science helps us understand the chaos in today’s media

“Restaurants that revel in using the science of cookery to come up with new techniques that result in pleasing and often surprising outcomes are not just proliferating but are consistently ranked as the best in the world (Chicago’s Alinea or Spain’s now-closed El Bulli, for example). It’s an indication that as a population, we’re finally beginning to see cooking for what it truly is: a scientific engineering problem in which the inputs are raw ingredients and technique and the outputs are deliciously edible results.”
- J. Kenji López-Alt. “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.”

We live in an attention economy. The New York Times, Fox News, Netflix, Facebook, any media-based company you can name, makes its profit by capturing and holding our attention. Each minute of attention on their site, station, or app translates to marketing dollars. In order to compete for these dollars, these companies are turning to the behavioral sciences to develop and deploy techniques to capture our attention. These behavioral techniques not only capture our attention, they can also spread ideas and attitudes, the principle components of behavior.

With a little editing, Kenji López-Alt’s quote is frighteningly apropos to our media landscape:

Media organizations and political campaigns that revel in using the behavioral sciences to come up with new techniques that result in pleasing and often surprising outcomes are not just proliferating but are consistently ranked as the best in the world (Facebook or Fox News, for example). It’s an indication that our media is beginning to see communication for what it truly is: a behavioral engineering problem in which the inputs are ideas and behavioral science techniques and the outputs are culture.”

The history of cooking is a useful place to start to understand what these “behavioral science techniques” are and where they come from.

The History of Cooking and Media

Cooking, or the preparation and serving of a meal, is a human tradition, or process, that has been around for as long as we have been human.

Ancient Egyptians harnessed the incredible power of wild yeast to leaven their bread, add flavor, and derive added nutrients as early as 4,000 years ago. This process improved from generation to generation, spanning millennia, through trial and error, long before we had any idea about the underlying complex chemistry of yeast and its relationship with dough.

This trial and error, or what we call experimentation in today’s scientific communities, allowed for progress in cooking — but at a slow rate and over long periods of time. From the time the oven was first created, at around 29,000 BC, it would be another 26,000 years until yeast was used to leaven dough, and another 3,000 years until that yeast was used to create distilled spirits.

Experimentation facilitated these cooking milestones, but it was messy and chaotic. Decisions to test various ingredients and techniques were based on hunches, cultural traditions and, often times, accidents. Though we don’t know for certain, researchers speculate that leavened dough was discovered accidentally by leaving out a mixture of flour and water on a warm day. Progress was unstructured and inexact, but it nonetheless shined a light on which cooking techniques work without the need to understand why they work.

Storytelling, or the transmission of an idea (or attitude), is another human tradition, or process, that has been around for as long as we have been human.

In all corners of the world, before writing was invented, humans harnessed the incredible power of the oral tradition to communicate ideas and attitudes. In a world without writing, how might one remember which plants are safe to eat or maintain rules of governance?

These oral cultures used a vast array of elaborate mnemonic devices — like alliteration, repetition, assonance, proverbs, and rhythmic speech — to increase the likelihood their ideas and attitudes would spread and be remembered. They did so without knowing the behavioral science principles that explain why these mnemonic techniques work so well. In other words, they discovered which techniques work without ever understanding why they work.

A revolution in the science of the mind

Over time, experimentation was formalized as the foundation of the scientific method, to which were added other improvements, like statistical hypothesis testing and falsifiability. These developments provided structure and precision to our investigations of the world.

The improvements in the scientific method coincided with the rise of statistics as its own discipline, reinvigorating the field of psychology and sprouting new fields of research like cognitive science, psychobiology and social neuroscience, or more generally, the behavioral sciences.

The behavioral sciences have since been applied to a number of topic domains like economics, organizational structures, and food science, inspiring the fields of behavioral economics, organizational behavior, and the behavioral science of eating. This latter specialization led to both the advancement of food manufacturing and nutrition-related public health interventions.

Potato chip manufacturers discovered that amplifying the sound of the crunch increases the perceived physical crunch of the chip, without actually altering the physical properties of that chip. Companies like Coca-Cola capitalized on the fact that an indescribable flavor bypasses the brain’s natural reaction to stop eating when it has experienced too much of it. This rule co-evolved with wild-occurring foods, such as produce, nuts, and meats. It does not recognize the new flavors manufactured by, for example, Doritos or Coca-Cola. When the brain fails to warn the body about an oversaturation of flavor, then we tend to overeat. This, of course, translates into bigger bellies — and bottom lines.

The same knowledge harnessed by industry to sell products is also employed by public health specialists to promote healthy behaviors. Relatively new behavioral science techniques that have been added to the public health specialist’s toolbox include: how plate size shapes the amount a person eats; how the physical placement of produce in a supermarket determines purchases; and how marketing healthy food as “healthy” leads people to think it tastes worse and feel less full.

Mechanisms of the brain are at the core of everything we do, think, and feel. The brain’s operating rules interact with our environment, determining our behaviors. The revolution of food science has, in many ways, been about understanding the techniques that excite or inhibit particular rules of the brain — and how they in turn produce certain outcomes. For example, when researchers branded a bottle of wine as Californian, it was perceived as tasting better than the same wine branded as North Dakotan — even when the contents remained two-buck chuck.

Of course, these behavioral science insights extend into every facet of our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in the media. Where cooking uses a variety of techniques (indistinguishable flavors, sound of crunch, plate size) to craft ingredients into a meal that influences our enjoyment beyond basic taste, media practitioners use behavioral science techniques to craft ideas and attitudes into content that impacts the beliefs we have about the world around us.

Media ingredients and preparation techniques

The primary ingredients of any media are the ideas and attitudes it communicates.

Ideas are concepts or thoughts about the world. This covers every possible idea, including ‘2+2 = 4,’ ‘season 2 of Stranger Things comes out in October,’ and ‘Jesus is the son of God’. Attitudes are feelings about the world, often attached to an idea that is communicated. When appended to an idea, it might take the form: “It is exciting that Season 2 of Stranger Things comes out in October”. An attitude on its own may be the internal feeling of glee or curiosity.

The techniques for packaging and communicating ideas and attitudes compose an array of behavioral science principles. These principles are the same biases and heuristics of the brain that food scientists leverage in designing foods. For example, the technique of employing a celebrity to endorse a food product is the application of the Halo Effect; the tendency for the impression of a person in one area — Michael Jordan is a great basketball player — to influence the audience’s opinion in another — Gatorade is delicious. The same principle is evoked when celebrities endorse politicians.

Eliciting specific emotions is one especially powerful technique. One way in which emotions can shape how an idea or attitude is communicated is through the specific behaviors that each emotion tends to elicit. Anxiety, for example, inspires people to seek to reduce uncertainty. Fast food chains deploy limited time offers as a technique to drive anxiety and sales. Remember when McDonald’s McRib sandwich returned for a limited time?

How limited was it? Well, it depended on sales.

This is also a powerful technique for the media, as it provides an opportunity to supply “answers” to an audience in search of certainty. This might explain why there are countdown clocks on cable news programs as viewers wait patiently for the results that are certain to come.

These are just two examples of hundreds of behavioral science principles that are exploited daily to package food, ideas, and attitudes.

How the attention economy has escalated the use and proficiency of these techniques

In most media today, profit is derived from capturing the attention of audiences. More attention means more opportunities to sell products or transmit ideas, and that equals more advertising dollars. The global competition for our attention has escalated into a frenetic world, as institutions and individuals feud for attention space. This means that they must not only reach us across all media channels (social media, broadcast, internet, VR, etc.), but they must also compete on how well their messages and ideas stick.

To do this, they must invest in strategies to compete in the attention economy. More often than not, they turn to behavioral science.

They deploy behavioral techniques for a variety of purposes across the entire spectrum of media. Some use these techniques to sell products or applications; others to garner political support or discredit an opponent. Some want to increase interest and awareness of topics like climate change or generate curiosity in subjects like science or human rights.

Twitter uses the behavioral science technique known as variable rewards by slightly delaying the page load of your notifications, in effect manufacturing the same joy we get from slot machines. Google utilizes confirmation bias by providing the links we expect in order to generate the opinion that its search engine is useful. Breitbart News amplifies the emotions of anxiety and fear to more successfully communicate ideas and attitudes that align with its positions.

It is important to note that once the attention of an audience is captured, there is an inevitable transmission of ideas and attitudes. Even institutions and individuals who are not in the business of communicating ideas beyond buy our product or make this in-app purchase will transmit other ideas and attitudes. For instance, when a character in a sitcom addresses a group of friends of both women and men as “you guys,” the screenwriters are (most likely) unintentionally communicating the idea that the male gender is the more important one to label and thus communicate. Whether accidental or not, ideas like these represent a beam in the scaffolding of sexism that has yet to be removed from our everyday discourse.

Other institutions and individuals are directly involved in the business of transmitting ideas intentionally. Take this tweet, for instance:

The idea transmitted here is that there is a planet orbiting a bright star named Vega. The attitude is that it would be positive to discover intelligent life there. The additional joke about vegans is an example of the application of humor and wordplay to improve the likelihood that this idea and attitude will be absorbed and remembered. It’s safe to assume that Neil deGrasse Tyson, a self-proclaimed science promoter, conveyed this idea intentionally.

Where does this leave us?

The media landscape is in flux as communicators continue to build a repertoire of behavioral science techniques to better package and disseminate ideas and attitudes. The combination of the rapid proliferation of content, as a way to capture attention, with the increasing use of behavioral techniques has led to a whirlwind of sticky ideas and attitudes hurdling across the minds of audiences everywhere. The delivery of some of these ideas is intentional, while others are not. Either way, the process continues, and our culture’s beliefs change.

The transmission of ideas and attitudes is so important because they represent the building blocks of behavior. In order to go out and vote in favor of policies to protect the climate, we must first believe in the idea that climate change is real and feel compelled to do something about it.

Whether we like it or not, the ideas and attitudes that lead us to engage in behaviors like civic participation or the pursuit of social equality are lost somewhere in the blur of our current media landscape. It is up to all of us, as communicators on the channels of our choice, to think critically about the ideas and attitudes we want to spread. Perhaps, at a time when misinformation is used to confuse people, we ought to communicate ideas that equip audiences with the tools to defend.

The next time you craft that Facebook post, think of it like you’re making a snack for a loved one. Consider the quality of the ingredients (ideas and attitudes) and the techniques with which you will prepare them. Making something delicious doesn’t mean it will necessarily be healthy, and posting for upvotes doesn’t mean it’s an idea worth spreading. As the cooks of our own communities, we have the responsibility to prepare something that is both delicious and nourishing. Perhaps we could aspire to craft our meals a little more like Ratatouille…

Thank you Matt Kertman and Natalie Gyenes for your minds, edits, and patience.