Brian Wansink (born 1960) is an American professor in the fields of consumer behavior and nutritional science. He is the former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) (2007–2009), and now holds the John S. Dyson Endowed Chair in the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University, where he is director of the Food and Brand Lab.
Wansink is best known for his work on consumer behavior and food and for popularizing terms such as "mindless eating" and "health halos." He is the author of over 100 academic articles and books, including the books Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2007) and Slim by Design (2014). He received the 2007 humorous Ig Nobel Prize and was named ABC World News Person of the Week on January 4, 2008.
In 2017, critics questioned the validity of research from the Food and Brand Lab, arguing that errors were found in several Wansink co-authored papers. Wansink later argued that a small number of errors has been erroneously reported as "many errors".
Wansink was born in Sioux City, Iowa. He received a B.S. from Wayne State College (Nebraska) in 1982 and an M.A. from Drake University in 1984, followed by a Ph.D. in Consumer behaviour in 1990 from Stanford University.
He was a Marketing Professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College (1990–1994) and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (1995–1997), and he was a Marketing, Nutritional Science, Advertising, and Agricultural Economics Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1997–2005) before moving to Cornell University (2005 to date).
Wansink founded the Food and Brand Lab in 1997 at the University of Illinois and the Consumer Education Foundation in 1999. In 2005, he moved both to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he founded the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.
In 2007, Wansink released the NY-Times best-selling book Mindless Eating.
From 2007-2009, Wansink took a leave of absence from Cornell to accept a White House appointment as the fourth Executive Director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, where he oversaw the development of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, the Healthy Eating Index, and the Cost of Raising a Child Index. He was also charged with promoting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, in the form of MyPyramid.
In 2009, he helped launch the Smarter Lunchroom Movement, a grassroots organization focused on nutrition in school lunches.
In 2011, Wansink was elected to a one-year-term as president of the Society for Nutrition Education.
In 2014, Wansink released the book Slim by Design and also launched the Global Healthy Weight Registry. The Global Health Weight Registry helps to discover how perpetually slim people have avoided gaining weight in an effort to provide potentially useful lessons for the majority of the population.
A consumer psychologist, Wansink is best known for his work on food psychology and eating behavior. This work focuses on how the environment leads or even tricks people into buying and eating food in ways they are unaware. While some of these insights are directed toward responsible food manufacturers and marketers, the majority are focused specifically at parents, dieters, and at the medical and nutrition community. Using a combination of lab studies and field studies, he has used movie popcorn, refillable soup bowls, bartender glasses, candy dishes, Chinese buffets, and ice cream socials to show how various environment cues influence the food intake of unknowing consumers. Although such environmental factors appear unrelated, they generally influence intake by inhibiting consumption monitoring and by suggesting alternative consumption norms.
In contrast to focusing on the macro-food environment as being the cause of the American obesity problem, Wansink's work focuses on the intermediate micro-environment that he contends people can control—their home and their daily habits. In counterpoint to social criticism of the obesigenic nature of our "foodscape," recent work has focused on the more promising changes that can be made in what Wansink refers to as the obesigenic nature of our "kitchenscapes" and "tablescapes."
The studies from the lab have been credited with the development of the 100 calorie packs and the Small Plate Movement, as well as quantifying a wide range of basic insights:
- Moving from a 12-inch to a 10-inch dinner plate leads people to serve and eat 22% less.
- A person will eat an average of 92% of any food they serve themselves.
- The average person makes in excess of 250 decisions about food each day.
- Low-fat labels lead people to eat 16-23% more total calories.
- The Nutritional Gatekeeper of a home influences an estimated 72% of all of the food their family eats.
- Because of visual illusions, people (even professional bartenders) pour 28% more into a short wide glasses than tall ones.
- 50% of the snack food bought in bulk (such as at a warehouse club store) is eaten within six days of purchase.
In examining the range of what is referred to as "mindless eating," Wansink has made contributions to three principal areas of food-related consumption: consumption norms, taste evaluation, and food selection.
In January 2017, the validity of research from the Food and Brand Lab was called into question by Jordan Anaya and colleagues, after Wansink had written about asking a graduate student to "salvage" conclusions from a study which had shown null results, subsequently producing five papers from it, all co-authored with Wansink. Anaya and Tim van der Zee and Nicholas J L Brown analysed four of the five papers, and found a total of 150 questionable numbers . According to the critics, requests for access to the original data were denied by Wansink, who cited privacy issues over the anonymity of the participants. Anaya and colleagues later found errors in six other other papers from the Food and Brand Lab. New York Magazine described the papers as "shockingly unprofessional" and expressed concern over the journals that published them.
Wansink announced an in-depth review of all disputed papers, after locating some of the original datasets, and intended to take steps to ensure such errors never happen again. On April 5th, Wansink published a detailed analysis of the alleged errors, and concluded that most of them were the natural results of being field studies (where some participants did not reply to all questions), while some were data or transcriptions errors. He noted in many cases a single error had been counted multiple times in the critics' reports, when a typographical error had been repeated within a paper. For a few cases where a paper or chapter was similar in a degree to an earlier work of Wansink, he contacted the journals and asked them to fix it.
Ig Nobel Prize
Wansink is a 2007 recipient of the Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition. The Ig Nobel prizes are a parody of the Nobel Prize and are awarded for achievements (or sometimes veiled criticisms thereof) that "first make people laugh, and then make them think." Wansink's award was issued for investigating people's appetite for mindless eating by secretly feeding them a self-refilling bowl of soup in the Bottomless Soup Bowl Study. It has come to be known as the Bottomless Bowl Principle.
- Slim by Design (2014), Brian Wansink New York: William Morrow. ISBN 0062136526
- Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006), Brian Wansink New York: Bantam-Dell. ISBN 0-553-80434-0.
- Marketing Nutrition – Soy, Functional Foods, Biotechnology, and Obesity (2005), Brian Wansink, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02942-9.
- Asking Questions: The Definitive Guide to Questionnaire Design – For Market Research, Political Polls, and Social and Health Questionnaires (2004), Norman Bradburn, Seymour Sudman, and Brian Wansink, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-7879-7088-3.
- Consumer Panels (Second Edition) (2002), Seymour Sudman and Brian Wansink, AMA: Chicago, IL. ISBN 0-87757-297-6.