Chocolate Cake v. Fruit–Or Why Get Emotional During “Rational” Negotiations

I was listening to a great story this morning on NPR which described an interesting experiment. 

In his book How We Decide, and in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jonah Lehrer writes about an experiment by Stanford University professor Baba Shiv, who collected several dozen undergraduates and divided them into two groups.

In the WSJ article, Jonah writes: “One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.”

Cake and fruit 
And then he writes:

 “Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Professor Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a “cognitive load” — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.”

 It turns out, Jonah explains, that the part of our brain that is most reasonable, rational and do-the-right-thing is easily toppled by the pull of raw sensual appetite, the lure of sweet. Knowing something is the right thing to do takes work — brain work — and our brains aren’t always up to that. The experiment, after all, tells us brains can’t even hold more than seven numbers at a time. Add five extra digits, and good sense tiptoes out of your head, and in comes the cake. “This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza,” Lehrer writes.

 First of all, I totally get it.  I had a very busy day yesterday with too much going on in my brain, came home to freshly baked chocolate chip cookies from my boys, and four warm fabulous cookies later realized that the diet for the day was a lost cause! 

More importantly, I think this also explains why emotions bubble up so regularly in negotiations.  We might think about all of the information rationally and organize ourselves and be completely ready for the negotiation but–once we are at the table and keeping track of all of that important information (like memorizing at least 7 numbers) we are on cognitive overload–we have a hard time keeping down the “emotional” side of our brain.  And our impulses, to respond inelegantly, to assume the worst, or to yell, are much more likely to rise to the surface.  Perhaps if we show up with warm cookies for all…

6 thoughts on “Chocolate Cake v. Fruit–Or Why Get Emotional During “Rational” Negotiations”

  1. Is there an alternative explanation? In the middle of a cognitive challenge, did the students see the chocolate cake as brain food? In other words, in times like these where all the mental bandwidth is needed, does the choice get unconsciously reframed? Were the students looking at the cake as providing caffeine or something else helpful in the cognitive task itself rather than as extra calories? Or perhaps a reward for extra work?

  2. I heard the same story and it made me think about how many times I have told people learning to be mediators that their job is to handle the process so that the parties could handle their dispute. Here is evidence that the mediator frees up some of the “cognitive load” so the parties can make healthy decisions!

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