The Scientific Reason Movie Theater Food Cravings Are Hard To Control

No trip to the movie theater is complete without a tub of buttery popcorn seated on your lap. Oh, and don't forget a bag of M&M's, an order of nachos, and a large blue raspberry slushy, of course.

The moment we set foot into the lobby of a movie theater, our senses are flooded with bright lights, vibrant colors, and a host of sweet and salty aromas. It's no wonder we feel the urge to snack immediately upon entry. In fact, many businesses specifically design spaces with this goal in mind. Otherwise known as point-of-purchase placement, this merchandising tactic involves placing products toward the front of the store in order to immediately catch a customer's eye (via CHRON). 

With snack sales being the main source of income for movie theaters, it only makes sense that the concession stand would be positioned front and center as you walk through the door. But the strategic layout of the lobby isn't the only reason you might feel cravings kick in. Nearly all of our senses are activated at the movie theater in a way that naturally steers us toward snacking. Most obviously, our sense of sight is affected as we sit in a movie theater blanketed in dim lighting. When the lights go down, you know it's show time, but science tells us that it may also signal chow time.

We may be more likely to reach for unhealthy food in dim lighting

According to a 2013 four-part study conducted by the Association for Consumer Research, we are more likely to reach for unhealthy food when seated in a dimly lit environment. When given the choice between a fruit cup or a cheesecake slice, participants seated around a table reached more often for the cheesecake when surrounded by dim lighting versus bright lighting. Sarah Lefebvre, an associate professor of marketing at Murray State University, told Time that turning down the lights — such as when in a movie theater — prompts us to relax. As a result, we're less focused on what we're eating and more focused on whether or not our protagonist will escape the clutches of the evil killer.

Movie theaters may also play on our sense of taste. Lefebvre notes how, in her own research, she found that dim lighting tends to enhance our perception of single-flavored food items — think sweet, salty, sour, etc. Over 80 college students were given a square of chocolate to eat while either wearing a pair of clear-lens sunglasses or dark-lens sunglasses, which were designed to simulate the ambiance lighting of dine-in restaurants. When wearing the tinted sunglasses, students reported a greater liking of the chocolate square. Offering a possible explanation for these findings, Lefebvre believes that as our sense of sight is diminished in low light, our sense of taste gets a boost to make up for the loss.

Enticing smells and group environments may prompt movie theater food cravings

Movie theaters can also stimulate our sense of smell, making cravings difficult to ignore. Reader's Digest reported that the ingredients in movie-theater popcorn giving the salty snack its signature scent are strong enough to be smelled throughout the theater. It's hard to stop your mouth from watering when you can smell all that buttery goodness from the back row.

While not one of our five senses, the social component of going to the movies may also play a role in our snacking. In a 2004 scientific review published in Nutrition, researchers looked at different elements of environmental ambiance and how they influenced participant eating behaviors, such as sound, temperature, the presence of others, and more. Known as social facilitation, the findings revealed that people often consume more food when surrounded by other people versus when eating by themselves.

If soda and popcorn aren't your jam or if you're looking to keep your sugar and salt intake low, know that you're welcome to bring your own healthy snacks to the theater. That way, you can satisfy those cravings that will inevitably hit as you're cackling away at the newest buddy comedy or nervously awaiting that jump-scare in the latest scary movie.