Space & Innovation

KFC Plagued By Urban Legends Fueled by Psychology

A man recently claimed to find a rat in his fast-food chicken order; it really was chicken, but why did he think otherwise? Continue reading →

Earlier this month a Los Angeles man posted a photo and video of what he claimed was a rat found in his KFC order. A photo of the piece of meat, which resembles a clumpy state of Nebraska with a thin tail-like strip of fried breading, was posted to Facebook by its finder, Devorise Dixon, and the image went viral with warnings about contaminated foods.

Dixon also claimed, rather improbably, that he brought it to the attention of the manager who then admitted it was indeed a rat. Dixon refused to answer questions from KFC about it but eventually agreed to have the piece analyzed. Earlier this week the "Los Angeles Times" reported that "A third-party independent lab tested the suspicious meal and determined it was undoubtedly a piece of hand-breaded chicken - an assertion KFC stood firm on."

Urban Legend Buster

Fast food outlets and packaged foods have long been the subject of rumors and urban legends, but this latest legend is different and can be explained by psychology. There are two components to this mistake (or hoax, depending on who you believe); one is psychological and the other is cultural.

So where did the illusion of a rat-shaped chicken come from? Our expectations influence our perceptions, and sometimes we see what we want to see (or fear we might see). Prepared meat such as beef or chicken is sometimes stringy, and unlike uniform, pre-formed chicken bits (sold, for example, by McDonald's under their Chicken McNuggets brand), the KFC chain uses whole cuts of chicken which vary somewhat in size, weight, color, and shape.

The seasoned coating adds another element of variety and can further affect the final texture and shape. The process of seasoning and frying adds bulk to what may otherwise be an unnoticed pencil-thin piece of meat that became partially separated from the same piece of meat. (In the photo the "tail" closely conforms to the contours of the "body," strongly indicating that it was not a separate body part but simply an errant bit that got separated from the rest in the process of frying.)

In many restaurants, fryers are used for different foods and a few small scraps of food may remain between batches. This can lead to unrelated foods being fried - and therefore stuck - together, and served together (if you've ever found an errant french fry in your order of onion rings, or vice-versa, you've experienced this).

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A fast food employee who routinely deep-fries and prepares hundreds of pieces of chicken in a typical shift wouldn't notice or pay any attention to the shape - he or she knows it's all chicken and has probably encountered chicken parts that look like anything from the outline of the United States to Homer Simpson's head.

It's the same reason people see faces in clouds and rocks; the human brain looks for meaning and significance. Thus it's not surprising that no one else noticed it. It's hard to believe that even the least attentive fast food employee could mistake a whole rat (hair, limbs, tail, and all) for a piece of breaded chicken, either putting it in the fryer, taking it out, or serving it.

Food, Psychology, and Folklore A much more interesting question is why Dixon mistook (or at least claims to have mistaken) the chicken piece for a rat. The answer lies in folklore and cultural expectations; many people are well aware of the urban legend about fried chicken that turns out to be rat.

As folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes in his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends," the story of the Kentucky Fried Rat "is one of the best-known food contamination stories, being circulated since the early 1970s. It describes how a customer of a national fried-chicken franchise allegedly found a batter-fried rat in a bucket of chicken."

One of the reasons why urban legends have such longevity is that they are by their very nature inherently plausible or possible. They are stories about common situations (and sometimes linked to specific familiar brands) that turn out to have a scary, funny, or horrific twist. The story has been debunked many times, including by the mythbusters at Snopes.com.

Whether Dixon genuinely believed he'd found a rat in his food is unknown, but in any event he was clearly aware of the legend and knew it would be at least superficially plausible to many people. The immediate identification of the allegedly fried rodent as a rat specifically - and not, for example any other tailed animal about the size of a deck of cards - is also telling. The shape doesn't actually fit rat anatomy at all; there's no neck, head, arms, or legs. Instead it's a lump of breaded chicken that, with some imagination (and a stringy "tail") might look vaguely rat-like if someone suggested it.

Most people have a laugh at the silly legend and eat at the fast food franchise anyway, but even if they know the story isn't true it sticks in their minds - maybe as something to base a prank off of, or just to tell a story that gets attention. KFC has been battered (no pun intended) by many false stories and legends over the years, and in fact earlier this month the company filed a lawsuit over Chinese rumors that the chain uses mutant eight-legged chickens in their food.

Now that the fried rat legend has been put to rest (again), people can go back to worrying about the real threats - such as hook-handed escaped killers stalking necking teenagers and vanishing hitchhikers waiting along lonely moonlit roads.

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