The Demon Vending Machine

by DavalosMcCormack on September 9, 2008

Vending machines are where good intentions go to die. They’re stacked with temptation and everything that is bad for you. I mean, when was the last time you saw a sprig of broccoli in a vending machine!

In a few rare instances you might find one that dispenses fruit, but the vast majority are filled with sugary or syrupy sodas, chocolates, assorted candies, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs and salty, fat laden-chips.

Worst of all they lurk where we can’t avoid them; in the break room at the office, in school corridors,  in the waiting room in train and bus stations, places where we are just standing around, idle, looking for something to do. So we buy something and eat it, often not because we really want it but just because it’s there and we can.

I used to work at a company that had a vending machine in the hallway between the elevator and the office. Everyone going to their desk had to pass by it. Every day I would see people standing there, staring at the machine, wondering what to buy.

Now it’s not as if the contents of the machine changed from day to day. It was always the same collection of Snickers Bars and Doritos and Red Vines. But each day people would stand there and stare, as if just looking long enough would help them find some new and exciting snack, something they’d missed the previous 127 times they had looked. That’s the definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

In the end they usually put their dollar in the machine and got what they always got and then went back to their desk and ate it without really ever looking at it.

That tells you two things. First, if you have to stare for more than 15 seconds at a vending machine when you already know what’s in it, there really isn’t anything there that you want. Second, if you repeat that routine every day the chances are that you aren’t really hungry at all, you’re just following a routine, one that unfortunately just happens to come packed with sugar and fat and calories.

It’s a routine familiar to millions of Americans. And it’s an expensive one too. Items in machines often cost twice what you would pay for them in the store. According to the National Automatic Merchandising Association, Americans spend more than $20 billion on food and beverages from vending machines every year. That’s a lot of cash for a lot of crap.

But just because the machines are automatic, doesn’t mean your response to them has to be too.

My friend Caitlin has a trick to figure out if she really wants something from a vending machine. She goes to the machine with no money. If she sees something she really, and I mean really wants, she then goes back to her desk to get the money. That gives her time to consider and re-consider her decision. If by the time she gets back to the machine and she still wants the chocolate bar or salty bag of chips, then she buys them. But often she says she reaches her desk and decides she doesn’t want them after all. Sometimes she gets all the way back to the vending machine before she realizes it was a passing fancy.

It’s a great technique. It stops her doing something just because that’s what she always does at that time of day. She is breaking the automatic reflex and instead become much more conscious about what she is doing, what she is eating.

Try it next time you feel like a mid-afternoon snack. You might find that the feeling of being able to walk past a vending machine without buying anything is much sweeter than the candy inside it.

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