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I’ll Eat What They Are Eating: Social Norm Influence Food Choices

Social norms and food choicesIs obesity a socially transmitted disease? Researchers in the United Kingdom performed a systematic review of several experimental studies, each of which examined whether or not offering information about others’ eating habits affect food choices or intake and found a correlation between social norms and food choices. The results are published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The researchers conducted meta-analysis on a total of fifteen studies from eleven publications. Eight of the studies investigated how information about food intake norms affect food consumed by the participants, while the other seven studies reported the effects of food choice norms on how people decide what to eat. After careful examination on the data, the researchers found consistent evidence that social norms influence food choices. “Our findings are consistent with the idea that eating behaviors can be transmitted socially,” says lead investigator Eric Robinson, PhD, of the University of Liverpool. “The findings of the present review may have implications for the development of more effective public health campaigns to promote ‘healthy eating’.”

Robinson and coworkers found that if participants were given information indicating that others were making choices on low-calorie or high-calorie foods, it significantly increased the probability that participants made similar choices. Moreover, data also suggest that social norms affect the quantity of food eaten – if participants were given a message that “others eat a lot”, then they are more likely to intake more.

The study also reveals a strong association between eating and social identity. “In some contexts, conforming to informational eating norms might be a way of reinforcing identity to a social group, which corresponds with social identity theory,” explains Robinson. “By this social identity account, if a person’s sense of self is strongly guided by their identity as a local community member and that community is perceived to eat healthily, then the person would be hypothesized to eat healthily to maintain a consistent sense of social identity.”

social identity

In order to keep a consistent sense of social identity, people may conform their eating habits to others’. *Image source: standarddiner.com

We all need to solidify our place in social group, but this need is just one way researchers found social norms affect our food choices. The analysis further revealed that the social mechanisms that influence what we decide to eat are present even when we eat alone or are at work, whether we are aware of that or not. “Human behavior can be guided by a perceived group norm, even when people have little or no motivation to please others,” notes Dr. Robinson. “Given that in some studies, participants did not believe that their behavior was affected by the information eating norms and it seems that participants might not have been consciously considering the norm information when making choices on foods to consume.”

The researchers caution that more research is needed, but that these studies can help people understand the way people make decisions on food consumption and can also help shape public policy and messaging about healthy choices. Robinson notes that normalizing healthy eating habits or reducing the prevalence of beliefs that many people eat unhealthily might have beneficial effects on public health.


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