Are you ever in a hunt for something in the grocery store, say a new energy bar, and find yourself choosing the bar whose box is emptier? A recent study published in the journal Appetite suggests that you are not alone: we may be more influenced by the food choices of those around us, than we are aware.
The study included a series of tests that focused on how common it is for people to conform to the eating habits of others, both directly and indirectly.
To begin one experiment, the researchers used a group of 144 people at a local bakery. They placed a bowl of individually wrapped chocolate candies near the ordering counter for customers to take at their leisure. About half of the customers entered the bakery when wrappers were left in the bowl and the other customers visited when there were no wrappers left in the bowl. The customers who passed the ordering counter saw an empty bowl next to the bowl of candy; the other customers saw a bowl with empty wrappers next to the bowl of candy.
These condition took place at different times of day to see which of the bowls would have more of an effect on the customers decision to take a piece.
The results: customers were more inclined to take a piece of candy when it looked like people before them had taken some, suggesting we are influenced by environmental, social, and physical cues that are not always recognized.
In a separate study conducted in a lab, participants were more inclined to choose the seemingly healthier option of two snacks (an oat-biscuit versus a chocolate one), based on empty wrappers they saw next to the snacks.
These findings also suggest that the company you bring to a meal also influences the choices you make, the researchers concluded. Consider this the next time you’re in the grocery store: you may be getting influenced choosing a product, and not from the store employees.
Tauryn Carter is a Nutrition intern at AICR and alumni of Johnson & Wales University Culinary Nutrition Program.