Decision making

How Strangers Influence What We Eat

This is an invited research digest contributed by Chelsea D. Christie (MA) and Dr. Frances S. Chen at the Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia.

How do you decide what to eat? Would you say that you make a calculated decision after considering nutritional value, taste, and cost? Or do you choose food that is readily available, easy to make, or that somebody else around you is eating?

A growing body of research indicates that social factors influence our eating habits more than you might think. In one study, Goldman, Herman, and Polivy had people deprive themselves of food for 24 hours before coming into the lab. In the lab, each participant was presented with an abundance of food and another researcher who pretended to be a fellow participant. Both participants were instructed to eat as much as they would like. If the pretend participant ate very little food, then the actual participant would also eat very little, despite his or her self-reported hunger. In other words, the influence of the other person was greater than the participants’ own physiological demands.

Many previous studies have demonstrated that other people are a powerful influence on how much we eat. For our study, we were interested in whether other people could influence a person’s choice of meal.  

We chose to study people’s food choices in a natural setting — a café on a university campus. The café offered a hot lunch menu that varied each day, but what remained consistent was that there was always a meat and vegetarian version of the meal. We secretly watched and made notes about people’s lunch orders. After the café patrons paid for their food, a researcher invited them to answer a short questionnaire.

Interestingly, the majority of people said that their main dish order was not influenced by what the person ahead of them in line ordered. What they actually ordered, however, told a different story. If somebody followed a vegetarian order, then they were much more likely to also order the vegetarian option than if they had followed a meat order. Similarly, if somebody followed a meat order, they were much more likely to order the meat option themselves.

To rule out the possibility that people were following friends with similar eating attitudes as themselves, we only studied people who did not know the person ahead of them in line. We also excluded vegetarians from the study because we did not expect them to be tempted into ordering meat simply by witnessing a prior meat order.

Our study results indicate that people copy (or ‘model’) the lunch orders of complete strangers in a café. It also appears that many people do so without being aware of doing it. When choosing what to eat, we should realize that more than just our own intentions and attitudes matter – who is around us matters too.

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