The Bottomless Bowl

No research topic is as easy to fund these days as research on obesity. We are, after all in the midst of an obesity epidemic, and so the NIH throws money at any researcher who can write a coherent sentence about overeating.

One example of this research—a particularly good example—is a now-famous paper by Brian Wansink, James Painter, and Jill North. Their research design has since become known as “the bottomless bowl study.”

The team gave one group of subjects an ordinary bowl of tomato soup. They were told to eat as much soup as they liked, and were then asked to rate the soup and to estimate how much they had consumed. Another group, the bottomless-bowl group, were given a bowl that looked identical, but the researchers had secretly connected the bowl to a series of tubes—the bowl stayed full no matter how much the participants ate.

In the end, those who ate from the bottomless bowl ate 73 percent more soup than those who were given an ordinary bowl. And yet, they didn’t feel any more full or think they had eaten any more.

What the study demonstrates is that it’s very difficult for us to control ourselves at the dinner table: subtle cues like serving sizes actually matter. And so nutritionists recommend small plates and that the serving dishes be kept away from the table. If you want a second serving, you have to stand up and get it.

But the idea of the bottomless bowl might transcend food. In a wonderful recent profile in The Atlantic, Tristan Harris argues that many smartphone apps are bottomless bowls themselves. There’s no way to scroll to the bottom of your Facebook feed—you can scroll forever.

Sites foster a sort of distracted lingering partly by lumping multiple services together. To answer the friend request, we’ll pass by the News Feed, where pictures and auto-play videos seduce us into scrolling through an infinite stream of posts—what Harris calls a “bottomless bowl,” referring to a study that found people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra. The “friend request” tab will nudge us to add even more contacts by suggesting “people you may know,” and in a split second, our unconscious impulses cause the cycle to continue: Once we send the friend request, an alert appears on the recipient’s phone in bright red—a “trigger” color, Harris says, more likely than some other hues to make people click—and because seeing our name taps into a hardwired sense of social obligation, she will drop everything to answer. In the end, he says, companies “stand back watching as a billion people run around like chickens with their heads cut off, responding to each other and feeling indebted to each other.”

It’s impossible to avoid exhibiting psychological biases, to avoid being irrational. In the case of the bottomless bowl, we just can’t help but end up on auto-pilot when eating, just sipping more and more soup because it’s there. The solution is not to change our behavior—this is just human nature. The solution is to avoid bottomless bowls altogether.