Who’s Hungry? How other people influence our eating habits
We all eat to live, and some of us also live to eat. There are few things that are more enjoyable than a meal at our favorite restaurant or a homecooked meal with family. The fact that food is so enjoyable can actually be a bit of a pain for people aiming to lose weight. It can often be the other people in our lives that make sticking to a diet so hard. Our friends want to go out to get fast food, or our family is making a feast at a gathering this weekend. We work hard to avoid foods that we shouldn’t eat, but when our friends and family seem to shove these foods back in our face again and again, it is hard not to give in and join them. This week’s research article is titled “Social Influences on Eating”.1 The article reviews the various ways in which other people influence how and what we eat. It turns out that other people can play a huge role in our eating behavior, and it helps to be aware of the main ways in which they influence us.
People model the eating of others
First, the authors discuss the fact that people model (or imitate) each other’s eating behaviors. In many situations people seem to copy the types of food that the people around them choose to eat. This has been found in laboratory settings and in natural settings, like restaurants. For example, adults show similar diets to the people they dine with most often. Meanwhile, teenagers who go shopping together are more likely to order healthy food when their friends also choose healthy food. Not only do people model the types of food that others eat, but they also model the amount of food that others around them are eating. When people eat with others who are consuming more food, they consume more food themselves, and vice versa.
Now why do people model each other while eating? This is something science is still working to fully understand. Research suggests that one possibility is that people get joy from bonding over shared eating experiences. For example, when you see your friends raving over a new restaurant, you likely become excited to try it and join in on their fun. Or as another example, imagine one day your friends are starving and ready to chow down at a buffet. If you’re not particularly full already, seeing your friends longing for food might make you want to experience the joy of eating a big, delicious meal with them, so you tag along. However, the reward that comes from sharing food preferences or eating experiences can’t explain everything about why we model other’s eating behaviors. For example, research has documented that people tend to take a sip of their drink or grab a forkful of food at the same time as other people they are eating with. Have you ever reached for the last slice of pizza at the same time as another person? Science is still working to explain why people do this, and in what situations it happens more often.
People adjust their eating habits to look good to others
Another way in which people influence our food choices is through our desire to maintain a positive image. If we think that the people we are eating with expect us to eat a certain way, we will try to eat in that way. For example, if you find out that the parents of your new romantic partner are very health conscious, you may be more likely to order a salad at dinner with them to impress them. People may also have a more general desire to portray a certain image of themselves while eating. For example, people might avoid eating large amounts of food around other people out of fear that they will be judged for it. The expectations that other people have about eating can shape how we eat.
The social facilitation of eating: people just eat more when dining with other people
The last topic the article discusses is the social facilitation of eating, which is the phenomenon that people simply eat more food with other people than they do while eating alone. Being around friends and family seems to lead people to eat larger amounts of food. Studies have found that this happens in many different situations if it’s with people who are well known. Whether people are at a family barbeque or out getting ice-cream with a couple friends, they eat more than they would if they were alone. It is still not clear why this effect happens. While a few different explanations have been floated, scientists are still working to formally test them.
Altogether, these social influences: modelling, impression management (trying to look good), and social facilitation, all affect what and how much people eat. It helps to be aware of these influences if you’re trying to maintain a healthy weight. Of course, it can be complicated to work around these factors because people can’t realistically avoid eating when spending time with their friends and family. The good news is that just as other people can influence our eating; we can also influence them! If we make healthy choices in eating and talk about it with our friends and family, they may very well follow suit. This can make it easier for all of us to eat healthier.
Social facilitation of eating – This is a phenomenon observed by behavioral scientists in where people eat more food around their friends and family than they do alone.
- Higgs, S., & Ruddock, H. (2020). Social influences on eating. Handbook of eating and drinking: Interdisciplinary perspectives, 277-291.