Unit bias. A new heuristic that helps explain the effect of portion size on food intake

Psychol Sci. 2006 Jun;17(6):521-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01738.x.


People seem to think that a unit of some entity (with certain constraints) is the appropriate and optimal amount. We refer to this heuristic as unit bias. We illustrate unit bias by demonstrating large effects of unit segmentation, a form of portion control, on food intake. Thus, people choose, and presumably eat, much greater weights of Tootsie Rolls and pretzels when offered a large as opposed to a small unit size (and given the option of taking as many units as they choose at no monetary cost). Additionally, they consume substantially more M&M's when the candies are offered with a large as opposed to a small spoon (again with no limits as to the number of spoonfuls to be taken). We propose that unit bias explains why small portion sizes are effective in controlling consumption; in some cases, people served small portions would simply eat additional portions if it were not for unit bias. We argue that unit bias is a general feature in human choice and discuss possible origins of this bias, including consumption norms.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Energy Intake*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Food*
  • Humans
  • Psychology / methods*
  • Size Perception*