The word “conditioning” conjures up images of food, ringing bells, and Pavolv’s dogs. In the turn-of-the-century pre-Bolshevik Russia, Ivan Pavolv rang a bell and fed dogs frequently enough for them to associate the ringing of the bell with food. Eventually the dogs started to salivate every time they heard the bell – even if there was no food.
Eighty years later, psychologist Leann Birch reran this study with a few twists. She and her team repeatedly gave preschool children snacks in a specific location where they would always see a rotating light and hear a certain song. They came to associate the light and the song with snack-time and eating. On a different day shortly after they had finished lunch, she turned on the light and played the song again. Dog-gone it – they started eating again.[i]
When we condition our children, we do not do so with lights and music, but with our words and behavior.
Take the Popeye Project.[ii]My Lab is trying to understand why some children curiously develop powerfully positive associations with healthy foods – such as broiled fish, broccoli, and even seaweed – that are not typically liked by most children. In beginning this work, we conducted separate interviews with children and with their parents. These interviews took an abrupt right turn a couple weeks after they began.
We expected that the children with positive associations toward healthy foods “inherited” them from their parents. While true in some cases, in other cases, the parents did not leave this to chance. These parents explicitly associated the foods with a positive benefit – such as “spinach makes you strong like Popeye.” Some children grew up eating a lot of fish because their parents told them it would make them smart. Others were told to eat lots of carrots so they could see far distances, meat so they would be strong, bananas so they would have strong bones, and fruit so they could keep cool in the summer. A couple children (whose parents were originally from China) even grew up eating – and loving seaweed – because they were told it would prevent “stomach disease” and goiters.[iii] Hard to see that one as a big motivator to a four-year-old. That first day of school would be one to remember, “Hi, I’m Jennifer. What I did on my summer vacation was to go to the beach and eat seaweed so I can be goiter-free.”
We’ve interviewed dozens of 3-5 year olds through the Popeye Project so far, and we have collected a lot of insights related to healthy eating. Yet an odd set of interviews occurred in early 2006. At one particular daycare center in Ithaca, NY, a number of the children had uncharacteristically strong preferences for broccoli. This seemed unusual because this bitter vegetable is not as kid-friendly as others (such as carrots and peas). Many of the children loved broccoli because their friends liked it and because it was cool. Most of these associations we could trace back to two brothers. In their laddering interviews both said it reminded them of dinosaur trees, and they liked it because of that. This did not make much sense but because of the far reaching impact it seemed to have on the rest of the daycare we decided to interview their parents. We discovered their mother had convinced them that when they ate broccoli, they could pretend they were “long-neck dinosaurs eating the dinosaur trees.” At the dinosaur-loving age of 2 and 4, that was pretty cool, and it quickly became pretty cool to their friends. Brainwashing, conditioning, or just a smart parent? Viva la Brontosaurus.
My Lab tried to leverage this with a vacation Bible School group a short time ago. The children could choose what they wanted from a lunch buffet, but each day we would rename foods to give them better associations. For instance when we renamed peas to “Power Peas,” the number children taking them would nearly double. The most embarrassing poetic license we took was with a V-8-like vegetable juice. We ran out of stock on the days we renamed it “Rainforest Smoothie.”
These associations are not wrong although they might be a little stretched – Einstein probably did not make his breakthroughs while eating “brainfood” whitefish at Long John Silvers or the Red Lobster. Nevertheless, just as negative food associations of reward, punishment, comfort, or guilt follow children to adulthood, so can the positive associations of what good food can do for them.[v]
But words also work the other way around. Negative associations can be made with unhealthy foods. While we have all heard, “If you eat that, you’ll get fat,” that is not a strong or very vivid form of conditioning. While there are not too many published studies on this, it is an area rich with anecdotes.
Joyce is an interesting example. As an adult, she never had cravings for cake and cookies. For 45 years, she has never had to fight the gravitational pull that these sweet snacks have on most of us. Why no apparent sweet tooth? It is almost a Manchurian Candidate brainwashing explanation. As a little girl, her mother repeatedly told her that eating sweet snacks between meals was what low class people did.[vi]Extreme, yes. Bourgeois, yes. Politically incorrect, yes. Yet because there were no sweet snacks available and because she had a (unmerited) stigma attached to them, Joyce never developed the temptation toward these foods that has cursed most of the rest of us. It is not just food availability that drives kiddy consumption, it is also the food conditioning and reinforcement routine set by Mom and Dad.
The 4 Ps of Feeding the Finicky
An expert who specialized in feeding finicky eaters told me about the 4Ps of feeding the finicky.
Positive: Make mealtime a positive experience and praise your kids.
Patience: Don’t take food rejection personally
Persistence: Keep trying; it might take 15 tastes before tastes begin to change
Physical activity: The more they move, the hungrier they will be at mealtime
[i]We use this book in the field when making child-friendly foods for our studies: Sheila Ellison and Judith Gray,365 Foods Kids Love to Eat: Fun, Nutritious, Kid-Tested and Kid-Approved(New York: Gramercy Books, 1995.
[ii]This new area of study is focusing on how why some children develop positive views toward healthy foods, while others do not. The foundation for this is based on what we learned about how comfort foods are formed with adults which is found in Brian Wansink and Cynthia Sangerman, “Engineering Comfort Foods,” American Demographics(July 2000), 66-67.
[iii]Both of these children, whose parents were originally from mainland China, were raised almost exlusively on Chinese food. Although iodized salt supposedly supposed to prevent a thyroid condition, this knowledge certainly would not encourage increased seaweed consumption.
[iv]This little nugget was from Carolyn Wyman’s very entertaining book, Better than Homemade, (2004, Philadelphia: Quirk Books).
[v]Paul Rozin, Nicole Kurzer, and Adam B. Cohen, “Free Associations to “Food”: The Effects of Gender, Generation, and Culture,” Journal of Research in Personality(October 2002), 36:5, 419-441.
[vi]This is a common perception in France with snacking. Among the Bourgeois snacking between meals is still considered a behavior well-mannered people do not do.
For 30 years my Lab and I have focused on discovering secret answers to help people live better lives. Some of these relate to health and happiness (and often to food). Please share whatever you find useful.
This video of one of my post-docs gives a flavor of one type of research that we've done: