Portioning blame

McDonald's: Image from Flickr user DRB62
McDonald’s, Toledo, Ohio, 1967. Image from DRB62 on Flickr.

We’ve looked previously at the effect of portion/packaging sizes as a ‘choice of default’ architecture of control, and I’m aware that I have not yet reviewed Dr Brian Wansink‘s excellent Mindless Eating, which examines this and other psychological aspects of the way we eat. I will do this in due course.

In the meantime, though, here’s an interesting account of the invention (probably one instance of many) of super-sizing as a specific technique for increasing consumption, from Michael Pollan‘s fascinating The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

…The soda makers don’t deserve credit for the invention of super-sizing. That distinction belongs to a man named David Wallerstein…[who] in the fifties and sixties …w orked for a chain of movie theaters in Texas, where he labored to expand sales of soda and popcorn – the high mark-up items that theaters depend on for their profitability. As the story is told in John Love’s official history of McDonald’s, Wallerstein tried everything he could think of to goose up sales – two-for-one deals, matinee specials – but found he simply could not induce customers to buy more than one soda and one bag of popcorn. He thought he knew why: Going for seconds makes people feel piggish.

Wallerstein discovered that people would spring for more popcorn and soda – a lot more – as long as it came in a single gigantic serving. Thus was born the two-quart bucket of popcorn, the sixty-four ounce Big Gulp, and, in time, the Big Mac and the jumbo fries, though Ray Kroc himself took some convincing. In 1968, Wallerstein went to work for McDonald’s, but, try as he might, he couldn’t convince Kroc, the company’s founder, of supersizing’s magic powers.

“If people want more fries,” Kroc told him, “they can buy two bags.” Wallerstein patiently explained that McDonald’s customers did want more but were reluctant to buy a second bag. “They don’t want to look like gluttons.”

Kroc remained skeptical, so Wallerstein went looking for proof. He began staking out McDonald’s outlets in and around Chicago, observing how people ate. He saw customers noisily draining their sodas, and digging infinitesimal bits of salt and burnt spud out of their little bags of French fries. After Wallerstein presented his findings, Kroc relented, approved supersized portions, and the dramatic spike in sales confirmed the marketer’s hunch… One might think that people would stop eating and drinking these gargantuan portions as soon as they felt full, but it turns out hunger doesn’t work that way. Researchers have found that people (and animals) presented with large portions will eat up to 30 percent more than they would otherwise.

As I say, we’ll come back to this and similar issues in due course, but I think it’s worth bearing in mind the implications of the unit bias phenomenon within design generally. Where else does it apply?


  1. The converse of supersizing is the “As many visits as you want” Carvery (not to be confused with the far inferior single-serving carvery).

    The carvery is supposed to play upon people’s reluctance to look like gluttons, by persuading them that because the amount they can eat is unlimited they should take smaller servings. This achieves less waste, customers feeling they have had access to a feast even if they didn’t gorge themselves, and the truly gluttinous still being satisfied.

  2. In the specific case of movie theatre food and drink, there’s another obvious factor at work in making people reluctant to get multiple servings, without affecting their willingness to get a single very large serving.

    The fact that the patron has two hands, and inside the theatre proper, one armrest to call their own and no table.

    Managing more than two items (e.g. one drink and one popcorn) at the same time under those circumstances is asking for spills, wastage, and probably the wrath of other patrons. And getting additional portions sequentially means missing parts of the movie.

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  4. “None of2” has a really good point. It’s very easy to look like an idiot or a pig when trying to carry way more food/drinks than one can carry without using their arms while desperately not trying to drop anything. I’ve run across this idea in a few business books as well.

    On another note… I wouldn’t be able to handle a 64 ounce soda… not for the huge volume, but the 5+ cans worth of caffiene. A big mac and fries does sound really good right now though.

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