A new study conducted by researchers from City University London explored how different social dynamics may affect what consumers eat. According to the findings, being around new groups of people may prompt consumers to make healthier choices out of fear of being judged for unhealthier options.
“We know that food plays an important role in social life and consumers often make inferences about others’ traits and characteristics based on their food choices,” said researcher Dr. Janina Steinmetz.
Social pressure may affect food choices
For the study, the researchers conducted several different experiments to understand how social dynamics affected food choices. First, the team explored how people who are part of different groups – racial groups, university students, and workplace employees – were affected by eating with others who are in their groups versus outsiders.
They learned that in each of the groups, being around newcomers led to healthier food choices. When university students were around students from other schools, they were more likely to choose healthier snacks; however, when in the presence of students from their own school, their snack choices weren’t as healthy. The same was true for participants of specific racial groups and employees at workplaces.
The researchers explained that the feeling of judgment from people who are considered to be outsiders is what prompts much of this behavior. To avoid feeling judged for eating something unhealthy and to make a good impression in front of new people, consumers are more likely to make healthier choices.
The team found similar results in another study of nearly 200 college students. The participants were offered either raisins or M&Ms as a snack when in the presence of either unknown students from their school or unknown students from another school. The participants were nearly three times as likely to choose the raisins when around students from a different school versus when they were with other students from their own schools.
The team hopes these findings are used to help promote healthy eating habits, especially knowing that many consumers want to make a good impression in front of people they don’t know well.
“Our research shows that we can use this important role of food for consumer welfare if we highlight that healthy food is not only good for consumers, but also helps them to impress others,” Dr. Steinmetz said.