Discomfort Food: Change May Make Us Crave It More

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What do you crave when your life turns upside down? When you switch jobs or have a kid or move to a new city, you want to immerse yourself in a warm bath of familiarity, right? You want Mom's chocolate-chip cookies, your favorite musician burbling from the speakers, maybe a glass of your most reliable booze chilling your hand.

This notion — that in times of change, we seek the comfort of what we know — repeatedly shows up in culture. You see it in ads for comfort foods and household products, and you also see it in high culture. In Anna Karenina, when Konstantin Levin goes home to the countryside from Moscow after his marriage proposal is rebuffed, Levin feels the confusion of his life "gradually clearing up and the shame and dissatisfaction with himself going away."

Many apologies, but Tolstoy appears to have been wrong. In times of change, a new study shows, we usually first seek out the unfamiliar, the new. "Change," according to the paper, which is set to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, "begets change."

The paper, written by Stacy Wood of the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, reports the results of five experiments Wood conducted in which she tested the hypothesis that we seek the things we know during times of upheaval.

In the first experiment, 203 American undergraduates in South Carolina were offered a choice between a prize pack containing Lay's potato chips — a quintessentially American brand — and one containing British crisps in odd flavors such as "Camembert and plum." After they made their picks, the students filled out questionnaires that measured how much change is going on in their lives. (The questionnaires asked them to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements like "I am making a lot of changes this month.") And surprisingly, those undergoing more changes were significantly more likely to have picked the British crisps over the Lay's.

Wood wanted more data, so she conducted the experiment again, with a few changes. This time, she reversed the order: she asked how much change 222 undergraduates at two universities were undergoing before asking them to choose between familiar and unfamiliar products — a much longer list this time, including "your regular brand" of deodorant vs. "a new one that looks interesting" at the same price, a free download from a band you know vs. one from a recommended band you don't and orange juice vs. "mandarin guava juice."

Yet again, the results were clear: those who said their lives were changing were far more likely to pick unfamiliar products than those for whom everything was pretty normal.

And so Wood conducted yet another experiment. This time, she asked 240 undergraduates to list either two big changes in their lives or eight big changes in their lives. Going back to the chips-vs.-crisps test, she found that those who had to think about eight changes in their lives were significantly more likely to choose the odd-flavored crisps than those who had to think about only two changes.

So what's going on here? In her paper, Wood hypothesizes that "changing circumstances may break habitual cues that favor old favorites and promote a more general 'change mindset' in the individual." You break up with your boring girlfriend, and suddenly you find that a lot of your old habits — Simpsons reruns after work, burritos from the same place every night, Sunday mornings in bed with the newspaper — feel too feeble for your emboldened new self. Or, as Wood writes — rather poetically for a marketing professor — "the familiar threads of everyday life stitch our habits into place." Unstitch the threads, and you undo the habits.

Wood admits her findings need to be replicated. But these preliminary results have far-reaching implications for everything from advertising to substance-abuse treatment. The findings suggest that when everything seems uncertain and awful, we may be most primed to undertake positive changes in our lives. Want to start exercising more or drinking less or getting off drugs? Maybe you should think about a new city, a new home, or at least a new routine.

But don't overthink. In her fifth experiment, Wood found that when research subjects are prompted to "STOP and THINK CAREFULLY" about a choice — she literally put those commands in capitals in the instructions — people were more likely to opt for their old, familiar choices. The lesson? Don't think, don't look, just leap.