How the perception of others’ food behaviors differs by social group closeness and what are the impacts on our own choices?
Fruits and vegetables improve health and have a low environmental impact, so increasing their consumption is important for a sustainable future. Social influence has been consistently shown to encourage people towards healthier choices, yet not every social group has the same influence on us: we tend to mirror the eating behaviors of our friends and family members (or just anyone we consistently share our meals with) more than those of strangers. Is it possible that our mere perception of what others would do influences our food choices? Is there a difference between our close ones and more distant people? These questions about the effect of social groups are explored in this article. They found that participants who believed it is the norm among people they eat with to make healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices have shopping baskets with healthier and more environmentally friendly foods.
Fruits and vegetables, and other food groups like nuts and legumes, are foods that have been associated with improved health, and they are also among those that have the lowest environmental impact (Clark et al., 2019). Therefore, encouraging better food choices is crucial for a sustainable future, for which we can capitalize on the enablers to the consumption of these foods. One of the main influences in food choice is the eating behaviors of others (Sharps and Robinson, 2016). Importantly, not everyone has the same influence on us: we are more inclined to imitate the choices of a social group that is close to us (e.g. your co-workers, family members, friends, housemates (Turner et al., 1987). Indeed, being exposed to the food choices of close others has been shown to influence our own more than being exposed to the food choices of more distant social groups (e.g. fellow nationals) (Stok et al., 2012 ; Liu et al., 2019)
In this study, the author examined whether people’s beliefs about the extent to which others will try to make healthy and environmentally friendly food choices are different between a close versus a distant social group, and whether these beliefs have an influence in actual food purchasing using a virtual supermarket setting. In this online platform, developed by the University of Oxford with the aim to emulate a real online supermarket as closely as possible and including 20,000 supermarket products extracted from a database of food and drinks that are available for purchase in six UK online supermarkets (Harrington et al., 2019).
Trying to make healthier food choices was perceived to be the norm more than trying to make environmentally friendly ones
Regardless of whether they judged the general UK population or people they share meals with, individuals perceived that trying to make healthier food choices was the norm more than trying to make environmentally friendly ones.
This result is consistent with recent findings of a Healthy and Sustainable Diets Consumer Poll conducted by the Food Standards Agency of the UK (Heard and Bogdan, 2021), where there was a comparative lack of awareness and prioritization of sustainable diets compared to healthy ones.
Indeed, the current study showed that compared to 87% of people saying eating a healthy diet was important to them, only 73% thought that eating sustainably was important. Similarly, while 75% reported that they knew what a healthy diet should consist of, this number dropped to 48% when asked about knowledge of what a sustainable diet should consist of.
Participants perceived people with whom they share meals to make healthier and more environmentally friendly choices than most people in the UK
Participants’ answers to perceived food norms also showed that individuals reported perceiving people who they share their meals with to be trying to make more environmentally friendly and healthier food choices when compared to the general UK population.
This finding could be explained by the fact that individuals tend to see others with whom they identify closely in a more positive light and attribute more positive behaviors to them (i.e., trying to make healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices) compared to people who they perceive as more distant to them (Tajfel et al., 1979).
Those who believe it is the norm among people they eat with to make healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices have shopping baskets with healthier and more environmentally friendly foods
Participants who perceived the people they eat with as trying to make both environmentally friendly and healthy food choices had themselves chosen foods with less negative environmental and health impacts in the online shopping task. In this task, participants did not spend any real money, nor receive the products they chose but were asked to imagine they were shopping and select things they would normally choose among products corresponding to items on a shopping list including “a savory snack for right now” and “meat, fish, or vegetarian alternative protein for main meal”.
These findings show that there was a consistency of a relationship between the perceived norm and individual behavior when the norms were enforced by a close social group (I.e. people they eat with), which was not found for either environmental or health norms when asked about their perceptions of most people in the UK’s food choices. Thus, it seems like the use of different social groups can change perceptions of social norms around food choices. Moreover, perceived norms in a closer, more socially relevant group that the individual is more likely to identify with, seem to influence food choice more than norms that refer to a general social group.
Based on : Çoker, E. N., et al. Perceptions of social norms around healthy and environmentally-friendly food choices: Linking the role of referent groups to behavior. Frontiers in Psychology, 2022; 13: 974830.
- Trying to make healthier food choices was perceived to be the norm more than trying to make environmentally friendly ones.
- Participants perceived people with whom they share meals to make healthier and more environmentally friendly choices than most people in the UK.
- Those who believe it is the norm among people they eat with to make healthier and more environmentally friendly food choices have shopping baskets with healthier and more environmentally friendly foods.