Lead author David Neal, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California when the research was conducted and now head of a social and consumer research firm, said the researchers gave people about to enter a movie theater a bucket of either just-popped, fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn.
The study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found moviegoers who didn't usually eat popcorn at the movies ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn, but moviegoers who said they typically had popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale.
In other words, for those in the habit of having popcorn at the movies, it made no difference whether the popcorn tasted good or not, Neal says.
"People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn," corresponding author Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at USC, says. "But once we've formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good."