Consumers may believe that they are more likely to rent favourite movies, listen to familiar music, and stick with engrained consumption habits (e.g., smoking, a daily latte) when they are otherwise surrounded by many new or changing environmental factors.
But the new study has overturned this commonly held intuition or "lay theory", showing that the choice of comfort foods is opposite to what we predict.
In a prediction study, participants predicted that in changing times a person would tend to choose a highly familiar version of a snack (American chip), while a stable person would choose the exotic unfamiliar version of a similar snack (British crisp).
They explained their predictions by saying that the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things, and the person experiencing change would be more interested in choosing a known or "sure thing" option.
But, in a separate choice study, participants were asked to rate the level of change and upheaval in their own lives and then, in a later task, given the opportunity to choose either the familiar American chip or the unfamiliar British crisp.
Contrary to the predictions, participants who were experiencing more change were less likely to choose the old familiar favourite and more likely to choose the new and unfamiliar option.
Thus, this result is called the "comfort food fallacy" effect.
It does not say that comfort foods are not enjoyable, but rather that we don't seem to seek them out when we think we do.
Contrary to our expectations, comfort foods appear to be chosen more often in comfortable times.
The researchers repeated the choice study with non-food options (such as downloading songs from favourite artists versus new artists or watching a favourite movie versus a new and not previously seen movie).
The results again showed that the same comfort food fallacy effect-people experiencing more change were less likely to choose old favourites.
The researchers explained that in states of change, we may find ourselves in a "change mindset," automatically more attuned to new options in our environment.
This study has suggested that a time of change (new job, new town, new situation) may be an ideal time to adopt desired changes because we are inherently more open to new options then.
Times of change and upheaval may also be surprisingly good times to break away from unhealthy comforts like smoking or junk food.
Recognizing the comfort food fallacy may help us better manage the positive new changes we make in our lives.