The older I get, the more I can’t deal with loud noises. Now in my late 20s, I’ve swapped blaring clubs for quiet pubs, transitioned from noisy rock music of my teens to chilled out acoustic tunes, and recently realized that I could never be a teacher when surrounded by excitable six-year-olds in a museum. To be honest, even the music in my office – considered to be a perk by many of my colleagues – annoys me much of the time. Call me a grandma, I don’t care.
But there’s one place where I can’t escape the boom: restaurants. When it comes to eating out I’m conflicted, torn between the need for a bit of peace and quiet and casual conversation with friends, and the almost guaranteed tastiness of a big juicy pulled pork burger, accompanied by blaring tunes.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but every type of dining establishment seems to come with its own kind of soundtrack. In any semi-classy pizza place it’s chilled out jazz, in a curry house it’s too often some kind of generic ‘ethnic’ music that’s only ever played in restaurants, in any non-chain burger joint it’s something obnoxious and beats based.
The one thing all of these have in common? The fact that the music is set at a volume that’s just a little bit too high to hold a normal-volume conversation.
However, it seems that your conversation isn’t the only thing being spoiled; your diet is too. According to research published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Sciences, which had participants dine at a café where music was either being played at 55 decibels or 70 decibels, you’re considerably more likely to choose unhealthy food in the louder restaurant. In fact, a hefty 20 percent more customers picked a meal that was deemed ‘unhealthy’ when the volume was higher.
Apparently, it’s all to do with the fact that noisy environments stimulate stress and excitement in our brains, also increasing our heart rate, which naturally drives us towards foods that are considered comforting. And it kind of makes sense really, given that no one has ever fancied a nice healthy salad after a busy day.
This kind of desire to influence customer behavior by stressing your brain out and pushing you towards pleasure seeking may also explain why our favorite shops have become so hideously insistent on installing completely insufferable live DJs, despite the fact that literally everyone on Earth hates them. Looking at you, Topshop.
On the contrary, soft music has the opposite effect, making us consider our food choices more thoroughly and typically leads to us ordering healthier options.
If you’re trying to cut back on the alcohol then your good intentions may again be being unwittingly sabotaged, with one 2008 study showing that punters knocked back considerably more beer when the music was turned up to 88 decibels. With conversation made harder to sustain with all that much background noise, you instead focus on the much easier task at hand… drinking.
Here’s the other thing: it’s not the fault of your waiter that you’re making unhealthy choices and drinking faster – he doesn’t just love this tune, and waiting on smashed people is a nightmare. In fact, music choices are often calculated to influence table turnover, with up-tempo songs subconsciously prompting people to eat faster, meaning more bums on seats for owners and more meals served. Deviously clever, hey?
Although previous research into what makes for the most profitable dining experience has been completed, this appears to be more or less the first study into how noise levels affect our food choices when we’re eating out. There’s still more research to be done, like into whether or not background noise of people chatting also influences our choices, but it’s nice to know that it’s not completely our fault that we lose control the minute we see apple pie on the menu.
Theoretically, though, this kind of insider info could actually prove pretty useful when it comes to how to avoid falling off of the healthy eating bandwagon. Not only do we know to choose chilled out restaurants, but we can also plug ourselves into something quiet and slow when we’re doing the weekly food shop, helping to steer us away from the chocolate aisle and into the fruit and veg corner. A little treat now and again won’t hurt though.