Introduction. This study examines consumer body type affects the food eating habits of those around them adjusted for whether the influencer is overweight or thin and whether the person being influenced has high or low self-esteem. The authors note that several authors point to a sedentary lifestyle and the high consumption of food as the main reason behind obesity, but little research has looked at how “food choices are shaped by those around us.” (p. 915). The study hypothesizes that food choice is subject to interpersonal influences, and people choose larger or smaller portions after viewing another consumer choices.
Methods. The three studies were conducted with pairs of individuals (one a confederate) who were invited to the lab to examine movie-viewing experiences. Two snacks were used based on weight and perceived healthiness or unhealthiness, granola and M & Ms. The confederates were outfitted with body suits in the cases where the study participants were overweight. (p. 918) The dependent measure was the perceived weight of the snack food in relation to the body “type” of the study confederate. The independent variables were the snack amounts taken and the confederate body type. This study was also augmented with a series of survey questions to determine how often study participants diet, if they eat sensibly in front of others and splurge alone, and if they feel guilt after over eating. (p. 918)
Discussion. Each study tested different aspects of personal social influence. Study 1 provided evidence that people focus on the food choices of others, while in isolation they do not (not even focusing on the subject’s impression management, which was contrary to the expected study results by the authors). In Study 2, the perceived weight was taken as the dependent variable and the amount of food taken along with the confederate body type were the independent variables. The results were similar in that the presence of others directly influences the amount of food one eats depending upon the pattern of eating by someone else. In Study 3, the size choice of the food selected was the dependent measure. Body dissatisfaction was the independent variable.
Overall the results were not surprising. It is not simply that eating with heavy people makes one eat more or less. It also depends upon what those others are eating as well. Across the three studies, the authors determined that consumers use quantities set up by others to determine how much they should choose as well as adjusting from this depending upon who the consumer is. Additionally, consumers are likely to eat greater portions if those around them do the same. The authors indicate that other studies have indicated that consumers can also mimic those around them without premeditated thought. However, there were multiple choices of food to select from and the authors did not witness any occurrences of mimicry by the consumers or the confederates. Limitations of the study were that the participants were almost all of normal weight. It is possible that these results would be duplicated in other settings, but it should be tested using different body types and different variables in the participants to verify (physical exercise acting as an influence.
McFerran, B.,Dahl, D., Fitzsimons, G., and Morales, A. (2010) I’ll Have What She’s Having: Effects of Social Influence and Body Type on the Food Choices of Others. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 36, No. 6 (April 2010), University of Chicago Press (pp. 915-929).