Motivation Matters: Tamara Masters Q&A

Dr Masters Figuring out the reasons behind the strange things consumers do is Tamara Masters’s passion, one she follows by studying consumer behavior, both in the marketplace and in restaurants. Masters, an assistant professor in the business management department, recently conducted a study that suggests when diners use larger forks, they eat less. Today she shares her thoughts on eating with spatulas, marketing, and consumer goals.

Marriott Alumni Magazine: It’s pretty widely known that when we use larger plates, we eat more. This study found the opposite to be true when it comes to utensil size. Were you surprised at the findings?

Masters: I thought we made a mistake! We ran the study again because it was so counterintuitive. But after talking to the people in the restaurant study we found out it has to do with goal pursuit. In a restaurant people have the mindset that eating there is an event—they plan for it, anticipate the food, and they want to have a good experience. They have the goal to get the most out of their investment. So when their plates have a whole bunch of food on them, with a small fork they don’t see that they are making progress in eating, and they’ll take more bites to feel like they are getting more bang for their buck.

MAM: What inspired you to start researching bite size?

TM: My daughters. They used smaller plates and forks growing up because they wanted to eat smaller portion sizes. I knew that the plate study had been done and how that affected consumer behavior, and I wondered if fork size would have that same effect. When we found out it had the opposite effect than we expected and it got into goal pursuit, I just loved it. My interest in marketing is consumer behavior—why people do what they do. It all comes down to understanding your consumers better—that’s how you do a better job in marketing.

MAM: So what kind of application can we expect to see from these results? Giant forks?

TM: That’s kind of tricky because it may be more of a subliminal thing where if people are aware of it the effect will disappear. I wouldn’t say people should take a spatula to a restaurant in order to eat less. I do know that we need to be aware of the goals of consumers or we might not get the results we expect as marketers. If the consumer’s goals are different from what we planned on, the results could be just the opposite of what we expected, which was an interesting outcome of this study.