Fast Food: Guilty Pleasure or Cognitive Dissonance?

by Victoria Caruso

Eating fast food is a common behavior among college students, because it is both cheap and convenient.  In an environment with little money and little time, many college students self-justify their consumption of fast food regularly, despite knowing the health risks.  When individuals act opposite of their beliefs, they undergo a common phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.  In other words, there is a disparity between how a person feels and how a person acts.  As a result, the individual attempts to resolve their inconsistent actions and beliefs.  The cognitive dissonance that college students experience with fast food occurs when their beliefs contradict the consumption of fast food.  

Despite increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes, and various forms of cancer, fifty four percent of college students admitted to eating fast food at least once a week (Haines, O’Neil, and Zanovec, 2010).  The common justification for eating fast food, besides the obvious appeal of taste, often involves the arguments of time and cost efficiency.  In addition, with classes, studying, athletics, work, extra curricular activities, and a social life, it is understandable that this demographic also claims that they eat more fast food in order to save time.  Most individuals of this demographic attribute their behavior to their belief that it is cheaper to buy fast food than healthy food.  While eighty eight percent of the participants said that they would pay more for healthier food, the participants expressed that they were unlikely to opt for salad or other healthy alternatives when given the chance to do so (Haines, O’Neil, and Zanovec, 2010).  This in turn expresses itself as cognitive dissonance, because the individual knows that there are healthier alternatives, is willing to pay extra for those alternatives, but is unwilling to eat the healthier choices.

Yet, by reframing their justifications, which I will describe below, these individuals can reduce their cognitive dissonance regarding fast food.  Reframing is a therapeutic concept that can be taken quite literally.  The process is a means to place a new frame on a situation is a way that allows the individual to express him or herself in a new light.  For example, it is typically more cost efficient to buy produce that will produce multiple meals than to buy already prepared meals from a fast food restaurant.  As a result, if members of this demographic are using cost effectiveness as their justification for ordering fast food, their justification will be interrupted and they will have to reframe their beliefs with the truth of the cost effectiveness.  In addition, you can prepare your meals for the week when you have free time, so that when you are in a rush, you can still eat well.   Furthermore, it is sometimes counter-productive to eat fast food for the sake of saving time, because it can often make people feel sluggish, which makes them less efficient.  Despite common belief amongst college students, buying affordable ingredients and preparing meals in advance often provides more time and cost efficiency than fast food.  

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