It s common knowledge that it s hard to choose fruit for dessert when everyone else at the table is ordering pie a la mode that is, social context can influence a person s food selections. Recent evidence suggests that even information about what others choose might affect a person s food selection.
Led by Dr. E. Robinson from the University of Liverpool, England, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 15 studies that assessed the validity of the concept that social norms might influence healthy or unhealthy dietary practices. The meta-analysis was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; the authors evaluated fourteen studies of undergraduate psychology students, while one used a representative sample of the British population. In the five studies in which it was reported, participants BMIs were in the normal range.
A typical procedure was to have the subject be told or read about others selections of a particular food e.g., cookies or pizza. Then the subject was given the opportunity to choose the amount of such foods to eat, and that data was recorded and analyzed. Overall, the analysis indicated that the participants were indeed significantly influenced by what they thought other people had chosen If they learned that others had overeaten (e.g., ate a lot of cookies), they were more likely to do so. The converse was also true. Interestingly, they were influenced more by information about social groups to which they belonged (other undergraduates, for example), than by information about the choices of other groups.
The take-home message from this meta-analysis is that not only can we be influenced by what we see others choosing to eat, but also by just learning about what and how much they consume. With respect to these findings the authors state they may have implications to promote healthy eating. Policies or messages that normalize healthy eating habits or reduce the prevalence of beliefs that a lot of people eat unhealthily may have beneficial effects on public health.
ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava thinks While these results are intriguing, there s a lot yet to be learned before lessons from such data can be practically applied. Most of the participants in this study were young college students, presumably relatively healthy, and easy to assign to a peer group. We would also want to know if and to what extent a more diverse population, older, obese men and women, would demonstrate similar effects of learning about the selections of a peer group.