Social influence in food choices: the good and the bad

What others eat can make us choose a healthier snack – but not what others think we souldh eat or what others like to eat

We generally conform (or desire to do so) to the acceptable social rules that we perceive around us. This social influence has been used numerous times in interventions to encourage people towards healthier food choices, by exposing people to different types of statements about others’ eating habits. What other people eat, what they think we should eat and what they like to eat are among the most common statements used to encourage people to eat healthy foods, yet the effectiveness of these different statements has never been explored in one study. This is the focus of this article, which found that what other people eat is the most efficient influence towards eating healthy.

Social norms are defined as the perceived informal, mostly unwritten, rules that define acceptable and appropriate actions within a given group (UNICEF, 2021). Since not following these acceptable rules could possibly outcast us from a social group, we tend to want to conform to them (Jacobson et al., 2011). This is why social norms, when made explicit, can be a powerful encouragement to abide to the specific behavior. For example, just mentioning that most people eat healthily can be a motivation to choose healthier foods, since it’s a reminder of the appropriate social norm (Higgs et al. 2019).

A recent article (Mollen et al., 2023) explores the influence of different food social norms on eating behavior. Participants in the study were told that a Dutch nutrition organization wanted to improve the presentation of the information on their website, which included one social norm about fruit and vegetable consumption. They were then asked to fill out an online food diary that the organization wanted to add to their website, including which three snacks they planned to eat the following day and their intention to eat healthy snacks the upcoming week. Using this clever design, where they varied the type of social norm that participants were exposed to, they investigated whether being exposed to what others eat, what others think we should eat, and what others like to eat influences food behavior and attitudes.

Exposure to other’s fruit and vegetable consumption results in healthier food choices but not intentions

Although all participants read an extract of the website including the attractive qualities of fruits and vegetables (e.g. colorful, unique flavor, low calorie), some participants’ extract included a social norm about others’ actual fruit and vegetable consumption (called descriptive norms; Cialdini et al., 1990).

  • One group read that most young adults eat fruits and vegetables on a daily basis (descriptive frequency norm) ;
  • Another group read that most young adults eat 200g of fruit and 250g of vegetables a day (descriptive quantity norm).

Both groups picked healthier snacks (including apple, tangerine, red bell pepper, and small tomatoes) as their diary choice for the next day more than participants whose website extract did not include information on others’ eating behaviors. This indicates that both the quantity and frequency of others’ eating behavior can guide a person’s eating decisions.

However, when asked about their intention to eat fruit and vegetables in the following week, having read about others’ behaviors had no effect. The authors proposed that descriptive norm messages simply provide a shortcut in the food decision-making process, such that these messages provide quick information on what the “correct” course of action is (Kallgren et al., 2000). Since intentions reflect a reasoned process of future plans, the shortcut provided by these messages is not that useful (Fishbein & Ajzen, 2011).

Communicating that others think you should consume fruit and vegetables has no effect on intentions to eat healthy snacks choice or anticipated snack choice

Another group read that most young adults (18–25 years old) think that you should eat 200 g of fruit and 250 g of vegetables on a daily basis, what is called an injunctive social norm, since it describes what the expectations are for this behavior (Cialdini et al., 1990). This group seems to not have been influenced by exposure to others’ expectations, neither on their snack choice for the following day nor on their intentions to consume healthy snacks the following week.

Although these results might seem surprising, given that people are generally motivated to conform to social expectations (Jacobson et al., 2011), it is also possible that exposure to injunctive social norms may result in reactance, due to its more forceful tone and the resistance of people to criticism (Stok et al., 2015).

Reading that others like fruit and vegetables also has no impact on snack choice or intention to eat healthy the following week

The last group of the study was exposed to a liking social norm stressing that most young adults think that fruits and vegetables taste goo). The authors found no effect of liking norms, whether on snack choice or intentions to consume healthier snacks, compared to the participants who weren’t exposed to information about other people’s behavior.

Although an influence of what others like to eat on eating behavior has been found before, with a study showing that being told that others like broccoli increased its consumption, this was only true for people who didn’t eat a lot of vegetables to begin with (Higgs, 2019). This sug­gests that what others like can affect behavior when it involves a change in perception, such as when people are convinced a specific food tastes bad or when the food is unfamiliar (Higgs, 2015).

Based on: Mollen S, et al. The influence of social norms on anticipated snacking: An experimental study comparing different types of social norms. Appetite, 2023; 180:106372.

Key messages
    Different types of social norms can have distinct effects on eating behaviors and attitudes.

  • Exposure to how often and how much fruits and vegetables others consume was the most effective in increasing healthy snack choices for the following day.
  • No type of social norm showed an effect on intentions to consume healthy snacks the following week.
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