Are you ever in a hunt for something in the grocery store, say a new energy bar, and find yourself choosing the bar whose box is emptier? A recent study published in the journal Appetite suggests that you are not alone: we may be more influenced by the food choices of those around us, than we are aware.
The study included a series of tests that focused on how common it is for people to conform to the eating habits of others, both directly and indirectly.
To begin one experiment, the researchers used a group of 144 people at a local bakery. They placed a bowl of individually wrapped chocolate candies near the ordering counter for customers to take at their leisure. About half of the customers entered the bakery when wrappers were left in the bowl and the other customers visited when there were no wrappers left in the bowl. The customers who passed the ordering counter saw an empty bowl next to the bowl of candy; the other customers saw a bowl with empty wrappers next to the bowl of candy.
These condition took place at different times of day to see which of the bowls would have more of an effect on the customers decision to take a piece.
The results: customers were more inclined to take a piece of candy when it looked like people before them had taken some, suggesting we are influenced by environmental, social, and physical cues that are not always recognized.
In a separate study conducted in a lab, participants were more inclined to choose the seemingly healthier option of two snacks (an oat-biscuit versus a chocolate one), based on empty wrappers they saw next to the snacks.
These findings also suggest that the company you bring to a meal also influences the choices you make, the researchers concluded. Consider this the next time you’re in the grocery store: you may be getting influenced choosing a product, and not from the store employees.
Tauryn Carter is a Nutrition intern at AICR and alumni of Johnson & Wales University Culinary Nutrition Program.
The motive at work in these situations, for me, is unrelated to the food.
In the ’empty wrapper’ scenario, if there are empty wrappers, I would conclude
a) that the candies are free (I don’t have to ask the store clerks what’s up with the bowl of chocolates)
b) that the chocolates are actually edible (good enough that some have been eaten).
Therefore, *if I want a chocolate*, here are some, which are free and which are non-offensive (there is a *lot* of offensive chocolate out there…)
In the two-snack scenario, I might conclude that the snack more highly represented by empty wrappers is better tasting than the other. Therefore, *if I want a snack* I will get more enjoyment from the item with more empty wrappers in evidence.
Another important factor – for me – would be the relative number of uneaten snacks. If the uneaten number of each snack is the same but the number of oat biscuit wrappers is greater, I might conclude that there are/were more oat biscuits available, and I might eat the oat biscuit (*if I wanted a biscuit*) in order to have less impact on the available supplies.
Does the company affect my meal choices when I am out socially? Absolutely – eating together is a social interaction, after all.
The choosing, however, begins long before the waiter arrives at the table – either based on the choice of companion (“Hey, where would you like to go for dinner?”), or based on the desired food (“Hey, I’m going to Subway — would you like to come along?”).
As with many of life choices the people in our enviornment play and enormous role in the choices we make in life whether just casually or formally associated with us. Part of being social animals is being influenced by and influencing the persons in our social enviornments. Ms. Carter’s review of this experiment is another piece of evidence that this phenomenon holds true even in the most ordinary of circumstances.