Why Sad Movies Make You Eat More Popcorn and Candy

Sure, you might have accidentally finished a whole package of Oreos while watching The Notebook, but who’s counting? Well, scientists are.

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Mar 5 2015, 9:45pm

Aye, you got dumped. Sorry, dude. Cue the eternal cliché of a forlorn woman in a pink bathrobe sobbing her way through a quart of French Silk, or the man crying his way through half a bottle of whiskey while an avuncular figure on an adjacent barstool pats him on the back and tries to reassure him that there are plenty of fish in the sea.

READ: Breaking Up at a Bar Is a Beautiful Disaster

Sometimes this self-destructive, calorie-stuffing behavior is accompanied by viewing a tragic love story or rom-com, depending on the circumstances. Snacking seems totally natural while watching any movie—hell, your local cinema is raking in at least as much of its fortune from $6 slushies and $8 boxes of Twizzlers as from tickets to see Whiplash—but you may not notice what kinds of food, or how much of it, you're scarfing down pertaining to the film in front of you.

Sure, you might have accidentally finished a whole package of Oreos while watching The Notebook, but who's counting? Well, scientists. As usual, those cute little scientists with beakers and test tubes and long white coats have come to the rescue, figuring out the reasoning behind things we didn't even know there was reasoning behind.

This time, it was that rowdy team of researchers at Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, who monitored the eating habits of subject who were watching either Love Story (spoiler alert: some people fall in love and then one of them dies) or Sweet Home Alabama (a romantic comedy about Reese Witherspoon choosing between two guys—enough said). The group that watched Ali MacGraw die a slow death ate 28 percent more popcorn than the group that watched Reese rediscover her adorable Southern roots.

To accompany their own scenario, the team of researchers also analyzed Thanksgiving weekend data pulled from theaters in seven US cities and found further support for the eating-your-feelings theory. Moviegoers who watched Solaris—a stressful sci-fi drama from 2002—ate 55 percent more popcorn than those who sat down to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Ironically, a fat wedding does not a fat moviegoer make.

A similar study from last year—also conducted by Cornell—found similar effects from action-packed thrillers. Apparently, being at the edge of your seat also takes you to the bottom of your popcorn bag. Researchers offered 94 students candy, cookies, carrots, and grapes while they watched 20 minutes of video. One third of the participants watched part of that 2005 Scarlett Johansson action movie The Island, another third watched the same clip with no sound, and a third group watched PBS's way less ADD-friendly talk show Charlie Rose.

The groups watching The Island ate almost twice as many snacks than the group that watched Charlie Rose—even the group watching it without sound, which consumed 36 percent more. The average Island watcher consumed an average of 354 calories and 314 (with and without sound, respectively), while those watching Charlie Rose consumed just 215. Sorry, PBS, and thanks for keeping us from unknowingly eating ourselves to death!

Researchers believe that the high level of distraction—shiny stuff and boobs and explosions!—in action films reduced the amount of attention that subjects paid to what they were stuffing into their mouths. Mindless eating is truly at its best when in a dark room with Will Smith in front of you and a seemingly endless vessel of bite-sized foods balanced on your lap.

Another possible reason for the difference: our taste buds may be less able to detect fat when we're in heightened states of emotion. At least, that's what German researchers found in 2013 after instructing a group of people to drink creamy drinks after watching videos that were very happy, very sad, or very boring. While "catching the feels" offer increased detection of bitter, sweet, and sour flavors, it dulled the subjects' ability to sense whether the drinks were fatty or not.

It turns out that feelings, rather than nihilism, are to be held accountable for mindless eating. But more importantly, if you're just trying to escape and carb-load, you might want to turn on an action movie instead of a romantic tragedy.