Choosing the right dining companions can make or break your diet says a new study. Researchers at the University of Illinois say your peers have a big influence on your meal choices.
“My conclusion from the research is that people want to be different, but not that different,” said U of I food economist Brenna Ellison in a news release. “We want to fit in with the people we’re dining with. It goes against the expectation that people will exhibit variety-seeking behavior; we don’t want to be that different from others.”
The study was conducted at a restaurant in Oklahoma that was divided into three distinct sections. One section of diners were given menus that included only the items and the prices. Another section featured menus with calorie counts for each item along with the prices.
Menus in the third section included traffic light symbols that corresponded to calorie amounts—green was low calorie, yellow was moderate and red indicated high calorie dishes. Then lunch receipts were collected and analyzed over a three month period.
Researchers found that those around the table didn’t want to make radically different choices than their meal-mates.
“The big takeaway from this research is that people were happier if they were making similar choices to those sitting around them,” Ellison said. “If my peers are ordering higher-calorie items or spending more money, then I am also happier, or at least less unhappy, if I order higher-calorie foods and spend more money.”
Ellison said that peer influence was strong especially when it came down to second-guessing meal choice.
“The most interesting thing we found was that no matter how someone felt about the category originally, even if it was initially a source of unhappiness, such as the items in the salad category, this unhappiness was offset when others had ordered within the same category,” she said. “Given this finding, we thought it would almost be better to nudge people toward healthier friends than healthier foods.”
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