Do you eat to impress? How others influence your food choices

There are many factors that influence what we eat and how much. These include culture, religion, income, family, cooking skill, accessibility, and other factors. When it comes to healthier food choices, social forces play an important role.

Research shows that the food we eat is influenced by our friends, family and coworkers. A lot of people draw inferences about others’ character based on what they eat. People who eat healthy foods are generally more positive than those who do not.

What about eating out with people from different social groups? This can influence your food choices. Yes.

The new study, which was conducted by UK researchers at Oxford Business School and Bayes Business School in London and American researchers at the Kellogg School of Management (Illinois), shows that people will choose healthier foods in the presence of outsiders to lessen negative judgements and make a positive impression.

Four separate experiments were conducted. The study was carried out in an American university and large city. It included 1,000 participants. Researchers examined how participants’ choices of food were affected by their affiliation with universities and workplaces.

The first two studies examined food choices based upon in-group influences versus those outside the group. Nearly 200 college students were given the option of M&Ms or raisins. Only 12% of students chose healthier raisins when they were accompanied by a fellow student from their university. This number increased to 31% when the unknown student was present at another university.

These studies were done to understand why the effect may occur. Fear of being negatively judged by outsiders is the reason. Research has shown that consumers who fear being negatively judged by outsiders may make more healthy food choices to counter the negative judgements and create a positive impression. A group of 200 people was told by researchers that their surroundings were either judgmental or accommodating. Subjects were more likely in the judgmental environment to prefer carrots over cookies, than those who were tolerant.

These findings could be an incentive to make healthy food choices. They also have important implications for public policy makers and marketers. Healthy eating is important. However, perceived social pressures can backfire and shine a negative light on healthy food choices.

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