Your dinner companions may
influence your food choices at a restaurant, according to a new study.
The study found that when a
group of people go to a restaurant, they tend to select items from the same
"My conclusion from
the research is that people want to be different, but not that different,"
study author Brenna Ellison, a food economist at the University of Illinois,
said in a university 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 behaviour; we don't want to be that different from
Ellison analysed three
months' worth of lunch receipts from a restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In one
section of the restaurant, guests received menus with items and prices only.
Customers in another section received menus with calorie counts for each
entree. Those in a third section received menus with the calorie count and a
traffic-light symbol that indicated the calorie ranges of food items:
green-light items had 400 calories or less, yellow-light items had 401 to 800
calories and red-light items had more than 800 calories.
"[Servers said] people
talked about the traffic lights a lot," Ellison said. "And we did
find that larger tables that received the traffic-light menus did order fewer
calories, on average, which suggests there was some peer pressure to order
"The big take away
from this research is that people were happier if they were making similar
choices to those sitting around them," she 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
"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," Ellison said. "Given this finding,
we thought it would almost be better to nudge people toward healthier friends
than healthier foods."
The study findings were
presented at the recent annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics
Association in Washington, DC.
Research presented at
meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed
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