December is the month when people spend the most money, especially in the West. Of course this is due to Christmas and the New Year festivities, where it is common to have restaurants charge ridiculous prices for New Year’s Eve dinners. A restaurateur in Berlin once admitted making more money on New Year’s Eve than on any other night of the year.

We are continually influenced in our purchasing decisions by the media and this time of the year is no different. Yummy family feasts now feature regularly on our TVs, along with suggestions that Christmas is incomplete without kilos of foie gras, trendy toys, expensive scents, etc. The power of influence was demonstrated recently by a discount shoe shop ini a funny prank to promote shoes by a fake designer called “Bruno Palessi”. A large group of popular social media “influencers” were fooled into buying US$20 shoes for up to US$640 while taking selfies of themselves. I find it both funny and curious that people with such poor judgment actually have the power to “influence” their followers.

Influence, and what it means

It has often been suggested that influence is a way of tapping into people’s aspirations; that seeing models in cool clothes or driving fancy cars is somehow an uplifting, positive, motivational experience. In reality, research suggests quite the opposite, that influence is used primarily to promote denialism, a factually-insufficient, yet self-affirming, usually subconscious reaction to things which invoke an emotional response. Oddly, the result of denialism is often a motivation to do something contrary to the real facts, and one common outcome is that we end up consuming things we do not need. The mechanics behind denialism are explained in this article.

Funny science

Scientific studies are also another way to influence consumer behaviour – but not all such studies are credible, and especially not after they have been reported by the media. I read a lot of papers about food and it is not uncommon to come across items which make me blink in disbelief. So following is a selection of annually recurring “studies” I found amusing.

Pizza

It has often been claimed that pizza is the most addictive food known to man, and can affect the brain like narcotics.

The original research was based on 120 undergraduates at the University of Michigan, whose diet consisted mainly of junk food. The financial status of these students was not known but they were probably not affluent or they would not have signed up for such studies and be eating proper food instead. Results indicated that only 7% of the subjects actually met the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) criteria for addictive behaviour although oddly, 92% said they were addicted. A follow-up study involving 398 people in another paid US survey found 10% of the subjects had addiction issues, according to the YFAS, but again 92% claimed they were addicted to fast food, including pizza.

The fact that junk and processed foods are extremely attractive to eat should not be surprising considering the many billions spent each year on making such food irresistible to humans. This has been discussed in this article and pizza probably ranks highly in the studies because it was the easiest fast food to order for US-based junk-loving subjects. Also, 65% of all humans (and up to 90% of Chinese) are lactose-intolerant so this is another giveaway pizza cannot possibly be the “most addictive food known to man”.

Drinking red wine is the same as exercising

Despite wanting to believe it, the truth is drinking red wine is not even close to being the same as exercising. This story stemmed from a University of Alberta paper by Dr Jason Dyck in the Journal of Physiology which actually had not studied red wine at all. His study investigated a compound called resveratrol found in some fruits, nuts and also red wine – and concluded that resveratrol could enhance the benefits of exercise for people restricted from normal physical activity, such as people with severe cardiac problems. Dr Dyck did helpfully suggest that if you need wine resveratrol in similar amounts as the study, then you need to drink between 100 and 1,000 bottles of wine a day.

Drinking WHILE exercising? Wow, double points! Or not.

There are a couple of other facts about wine. It is a calorific drink, and the calories should not be underestimated. I drink at least half a bottle of red wine every day, which equates to 325 calories or more, so exercise is required daily (which my dog helpfully obliges me to do). The other fact is a large-scale study this year summarised 592 other studies (covering 28 million people from many countries) and concluded that alcohol is a leading global cause of mortality and illness, and there are no safe limits for alcohol consumption. Oops.

Women are more open to romance when full

This story arose from a US paper titled, “Response to romantic cues is dependent on hunger state and dieting history: An fMRI pilot study”. The interesting bit is the use of fMRI or “functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging” to explore the brains of women – but everything else is not so interesting. Still, it was funny to read. Basically, a small group of 20 young women were directed to fast and then eat food until they stated in a questionnaire that they were full. At various random intervals between fasting and being full, they were subjected to tests involving viewing pictures of romantic human interactions and neutral pictures such as cars, staplers, trees and bowling balls while their brains were being scanned by a fMRI machine.

The main finding is the 20 young women were more stimulated by romantic pictures after they had eaten well and did not exhibit any changed reactions to the neutral pictures. The other finding is that women who have a history of dieting were even more responsive after eating. So the study is saying that some young women find staplers and bowling balls as uninteresting before or after eating but are more interested in romantic pictures when full. It is a pity that the study did not include pictures of cats, dogs and other cute animals because they also evoke emotions.

I am not sure what to make of this study but it suggests that it is a better idea to take your partner out to dinner rather than give her a stapler for her birthday. But if you need to know this, then you are quite likely single (for good reasons).

Champagne delays dementia

This story about champagne tends to go around this time of the year – and Champagne appears to be a preferred topic of investigation at the University of Reading. Not that I have anything against good Champagne but a perusal of “Phenolic Acid Intake, Delivered Via Moderate Champagne Wine Consumption, Improves Spatial Working Memory Via the Modulation of Hippocampal and Cortical Protein Expression/Activation” did not inspire confidence the celebratory New Year’s bottle will do any good – unless you are a male Wistar rat. It turns out the study was done on three groups of eight rats whose spatial skills were tested by running through a maze and seeing how well they can hang on to a beam after being fed Champagne, an energy drink and an energy drink with alcohol. From this, it was suggested the phenolics in Champagne had a beneficial effect on the brains of Wistar rats, and this may be worth investigating further in humans. But it is far from claiming that Champagne delays the onset of human dementia or Alzheimer’s, as reported.

Confusing?

If you feel many scientific studies are confusing, I sympathise fully. However, science is just science – there are always curious findings which will be extrapolated/exaggerated beyond their pure research value. There are many reasons for this, not least the pressure for scientists to produce headline-catching news to qualify for research funding – and this is then abetted by journalists looking for (or inventing) exactly such eye-catching news to sell magazines/newspapers.

But do not fall into the trap of believing only the studies that suit you. A lot of research is sponsored by commercial interests so it is always worth investigating alternative information, otherwise your decisions may be influenced by someone preying on your ignorance or promoting your denialism.


Curious Cook appears on the second and fourth Sunday of the month.