Food intake, both in quantity and type has been found to be affected by social influences. Social norms have been found to be very influential on our consumption of food, both on choice and intake (Higgs, 2015). There is evidence that eating with just one other person can influence our intake of food by 44% and this continues to increase as more people are present (DeCastro, 1997). DeCastro (1997) describes how simple behaviours are often increased by social influences. Eating is considered a simple behaviour, and animals have demonstrated eating more in the presence of others.
Bayer (1929) presented n experiment with a chicken who was allowed to eat as much as wheat as desired. When a hungry chicken was introduced and began to eat, the first chicken began to eat again immediately. It doesn’t seem feasible to conclude that this is due to hunger, but more due to the presence of the other chicken. To what extend does social influence effect human eating behaviour? Does eating with others affect what we choose to eat and how much we eat? In order to address this question, it is necessary to evaluate the influence of social norms on eating behaviours.
These social norms often present the ‘right’ way to behave, and these can be resented by both our parents and our peers. In general, we learn many of our social and behavioural skills through observation of others and by modelling this behaviour (Laible, 2007). Herman & Polivy (2005) suggest that we very often use others food intake and behaviour as a guideline for our own eating behaviour. This is the case for what foods we choose to eat and also how much food we consume. It is important to evaluate the strengths of these social norms and whether we need to observe others directly to see significant effects.
Finally, individual characteristics are likely affect the extent to which ocial influences change eating behaviour. It is unlikely that we are all influenced by social norms to the same extent. It can be argued that who we eat with affects what we choose to eat and how much we eat to a great extent. This is due to our desire to follow social norms. Social norms are guides that increase our affiliation with a social group, make us more liked and provide us with information for correct behaviour (Deutsch & Gerard, 1955).
Social norms can affect our food intake directly but also indirectly. This is because there is evidence that we learn through observation both for present behaviour and uture behaviour (Feunekes, de Graff, Meyboom & van Staveren, 1998). We are motivated to follow social norms in order to establish the ‘right’ way to behave, and to help us adopt socially desirable eating behaviours (Higgs, 2015). Norm following often involves us modelling the behaviour of others through observation and imitation (Bevelander, Anschutz, Meiselman & Engels, 2012).
Herman, Roth and Polivy (2003) state that people eat similar amounts and make similar dining choices as models. This influence is so strong that research has shown that the model does not even need to be present for this modelling to occur. Theories of social learning would suggest that modelling behaviours occur due to observational learning (Bandura, 1977). There are important distinctions however when we comment on the influence of looking for clues to the ‘right way to behave’. Parents are often the individuals that children first model their behaviour from.
Research suggests that the eating behaviours of parents can be adopted by children and is influential in what they choose to eat and how much they eat (Klesges, Klem, Epkins & Klesges, 1991). Brown (2004) focused on parental influence on children’s eating behaviours, particularly on their intake of snack food. Questionnaires were used to establish food intake, motivations for eating, body satisfaction and parental control over food intake. Snack intake was measured through a score based on how often foods were eaten. These scores were given for healthy snacks and unhealthy snacks and then collated to give each child and parent a score.
When the children and parent scores were compared there was a significant correlation between parent and child’s snack food intake. This was particularly presented in parents and child’s unhealthy snack food reported to have been eaten ‘yesterday’. Parental influence as also been demonstrated by Klesges et al (1991) who showed that children are likely to select different foods when being watched by their parents than when they are independently eating. This influence even continued when the children had the ‘threat of their parents watching, even if they were not present.
From these findings we can suggest that if children are eating with their parents then they are likely to observe behaviours and model these behaviours. It is important to note however, that observational behaviour can influence attitudes also. In the context of parental role, if we eat with parents who have certain nxieties around food, then this can also influence children negatively. Hill, Weaver and Blundell (1990) found a link between mothers and daughters weight concern and how much mothers restrain diet. This suggests that who we eat with, could affect our individual attitudes, and we may carry these in all eating situations.
The presence of fathers/husband at a meal has also shown to have an effect, with more meat being consumed and an emphasis on table manners and pleasant ambiance (Charles & Kerr, 1988). A positive outlook from these findings is who we eat with can influence our food intake in a powerful way. It is clear that we are motivated as humans to learn from others, and this can be harnessed for good. If parents display healthy behaviours, then children are likely to model this, and this will affect what, and how much they choose to eat. Our desire to follow social norms is demonstrated even without directly observing a model.
This is through the interpretation of informational norms. This suggests that the eating behaviours of others extends beyond conscious observation. Deutch and Gerard (1955) describe this process as when people follow norms using environmental messages that give clues of how others may have behaved previously. Using remote confederates, participants were exposed to the amount of food consumed by previous participants. This was demonstrated through cues of empty chocolate wrappers. The amount of empty chocolate wrappers was manipulated across conditions (Prinsen, de Ridder, de Vet, 2013).
Results found that participants were more likely to consume chocolates when environmental cues indicated that others had too. This also extended to the choice of food, as participants were more likely to select a food that was consistent to the previous participants. These results suggest that even small environmental cues of thers eating behaviours can influence our own eating, both with quantity of food and food choice. However, this particular study did take a control level of participants eating behaviour. Meaning that they do not know their eating behaviour without the manipulations.
They only compared amount eaten between the conditions ‘no wrappers’ and ‘wrappers’. It would be suggested to take baseline measures and then expose participants to the manipulated conditions. This study could have in fact been testing participant’s food temptations rather than the effect of environmental cues. However, this research trongly suggests that we do not have to directly observe someone’s eating behaviour to be influenced by their choices.
For example, if a student is exposed to the remains of their housemate’s food choices in the kitchen, like empty pizza boxes (or two! then they can be influenced to eat a similar type of food, and a similar quantity. This research demonstrates the full| extent to which we can be influenced by observing the eating behaviour of others, whether this directly or indirectly. Social influence on food intake can be dependent on individual characteristics. There is evidence of varying levels of influence ased on whether the child is normal weight or overweight. Bevelander, Anschutz and Engels (2012) found that extent of children’s food intake influenced by the food intake of their peers is dependent on weight status.
There were two sessions involved in this experiment. In the first session, designed to test social modelling, the children were instructed to solve a puzzle with a confederate of the same sex and of normal weight. This confederate was told to either eat nothing, a small amount or a large amount of food. In the second session, which occurred a few days later, participants had to solve the puzzle alone and ere allowed to eat freely. Participants were split into normal weight and overweight groups, in order to observe the effect of weight status.
The results found suggested that overweight children were triggered to overeat when their peer (confederate) eats a high amount of snack food. However, the food intake of the normal weight children was dependent purely on whether the peer (confederate) ate food, not the amount of food consumed. This suggests that peers can set an example as to what food intake is appropriate, however this effect is amplified if the child is overweight themselves. The second session in this experiment, the free eating session, demonstrated that these effects are long-term.
The eating guideline set by the confederate in the first session, seemed to continue onto the free eating session when the participant was alone. It is important to note however, that in this experiment all the confederates were normal weight. Results may vary should the confederate be overweight. Children could arguably have been more inclined to eat the snack food because the child appeared to be normal weight, and this could perhaps normalise their eating behaviours. Using overweight onfederates could test whether participants would attach any stigma, or whether there is no difference.
This research suggests that who we eat with may affect what we choose to eat and particularly how much we choose to eat over the long term. It also suggests it is influenced by our weight status. These findings imply that overweight children may be more influenced long-term by observing overeating in their peers. This has implications for children eating their packed lunches in school for example. There is evidence here that peers can set a norm, and this could grow stronger should peers eat together every day.
To conclude, it is clear that the presence of others when consuming food can have a large effect on our own food intake. Both men and women consume a larger quantity of food when they are with others than when they are eating alone (Klesges, Bartsch, Norwood, Kautzman & Haugrud, 1984). Following theories of social learning and modelling, it could be suggested that this is a very important way for us to learn. We follow social norms in order to identify safe foods to eat, avoid social judgement and to create a shared identity with others (Higgs, 2015).
It is clear that different people are likely to affect us to differing degrees. Children are very likely to model the behaviours of their parents, due to their close interaction and evolutionary learning to establish safe eating behaviours (Savage, Fisher & Birch, 2007). Social learning has been shown to be very powerful, and humans even use informational norms to analyse how others may have behaved without observing it first-hand. It appears that we are able to take clues from the environment to help us choose our behaviours, and these are an influence on our food intake (Deutch & Gerard, 1955).
However, research has shown that some individuals are more susceptible to this effect than others. For example, those that could be considered overweight are more likely to be influenced by the behaviours of others. Who we eat with affects what we choose to eat and how much we chose to eat to a great extent, and it is important to understand how this effect can be harnessed. With levels of obesity in 2014 reaching 61. 7% in adults it is important that research is used to understand how we can influence food intake.