Another Casualty Of Fast Food: Your Attention Span

A set of experiments shows how a Big Mac can dull our emotional responses to enjoyable experiences that require our patience.

Another Casualty Of Fast Food: Your Attention Span
[Image: Big Mac via Flickr user Yum9Me]

If predictions from the last century had been right, we’d all be working a 15-hour week by now, and our main problem would be too much time to spare. Technology was supposed to lead us to lives of leisure, when arguably it’s had just the opposite effect. Time-saving devices have only raised expectations of what we can reasonably achieve in 24 hours, turning many of us into jittery fools.


The speed of modern life is the focus of a new paper that looks at how conveniences might dull our ability to be happy. Researchers at the University of Toronto investigated how fast food–which they call an “icon of time efficiency”–affects patience levels, and therefore our ability to “savor” the world around us.

From the paper:

…we argue that cultural symbols that tout time efficiency–fast food–influence how we experience the passage of time and events by instigating a generalized sense of impatience, which hampers peoples’ ability to fully experience and enjoy pleasurable moments in life—‘‘smelling the roses,’’ so to speak.

The researchers, Julian House, Sanford DeVoe, and Chen-Bo Zhong, conducted three experiments. First, they surveyed a pool of 280 volunteers online, asking about their “emotional responses to enjoyable experiences.” Then they plotted the results against the participants’ ZIP codes and mapped their locations alongside the concentration of fast food outlets. They found that residents of neighborhoods with more fast food tended to savor less.

For the second test, they split 257 people into groups, asking one group to view pictures of McDonald’s in standard packaging, and another to look at it in everyday tableware. After, they asked the volunteers to rate their happiness on seeing 10 photos of natural beauty. They found those people who saw the normal fast food rated their happiness lower after seeing the scenic pictures.

This street art defaces fast food ads with recipes for real food.

Finally, they showed 122 volunteers the same pictures as before (fast food in packaging and tableware) asked them to listen to an opera aria. The researchers wanted to understand what effect exposure to the burger imagery would have on the participants’ enjoyment and patience to listen to the end. They found a negative effect: Those in the fast food group liked it less, and said it went on for longer.

In an email, DeVoe says the results show only loose correlations–in other words, you wouldn’t bet your house on them. But the results are consistent both across three studies and eight others. “While these studies have examined different outcomes of impatience, the consistency of results in support of the thesis that fast food induces greater impatience is strong,” he says.


DeVoe doesn’t argue that fast food reduces happiness, but rather that it dulls our ability to experience a particular kind of happiness–the sort you have to savor. It’s possible fast food symbols could improve other types of thrills, like drugs and alcohol, which are more like quick releases.

But DeVoe argues we should be wary of fast food for more than its direct health consequences. “While the effects of fast food on our physical health are well-documented, what is most striking in this research is how fast food can alter the way we experience our time by making us more impatient, which then influences us across a wide variety of domains completely unrelated to food,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.