People choose healthier foods when around strangers for fear of being judged negatively

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People are more likely to choose a healthy food option than an unhealthy food option among people from different social groups because they fear being judged negatively for their choices.

New research, published in Psychology & Marketing and co-authored by Bayes Business School, found that the presence of individuals from different friend or social groups played a role in influencing consumers’ food choices.

The study, which explored food choices with those of a different race and a different university, explains that this occurs because individuals anticipate more negative judgment from strangers. The research, which spoke to about 1,000 people in total, shows that people often self-categorize based on their race, college affiliation and professional affiliation.

Experiments with several hundred adults in a large city and a university in the United States revealed that participants were more likely to choose a healthy snack in the presence of an observer of a different race (as opposed to the same race ) or affiliated with a different university (as opposed to their own university). Indeed, they expected a more negative judgment from an outside group and so they tried to mitigate those judgments by making healthier food choices.

Four separate experiments supported the authors’ view that the presence of a stranger from a different social group (versus a stranger from their own group, such as their own university) had an impact on participants’ food choice.

In one experiment, 180 college students were given a choice between indulgent M&Ms and healthier raisins as a snack. In the presence of an unknown comrade from his own university, only 12% of the students chose the healthiest raisins. However, this number more than doubled to 31% in the presence of an unknown student from another university.

The other experiments showed that the reason for this pattern is that people feel judged to a greater extent by outgroup members, and they strategically use healthy food choices to make a positive impression to counter this negative judgment. . For example, 200 consumers were told that others around them were judgmental or tolerant. In the judgment environment, consumers were more likely to choose carrots than in the tolerance environment, indicating that the judgment expected from others explains the results.

Last month, the Action on Sugar and Obesity Health Alliance called on the UK government to take action against the difference in sugar content and portion sizes of popular snacks. Despite many attempts to help consumers make healthier choices, consumers often struggle to maintain a healthy diet. This research reveals that one way to promote healthy eating may be to raise awareness of the social benefits of healthy choices.

Dr. Janina Steinmetz, Associate Professor (Reader) of Marketing at Bayes, said the findings have practical implications for healthy food marketers and policy makers hoping to promote healthy eating:

“We know that food plays an important role in social life and consumers often make inferences about the traits and characteristics of others based on their food choices.

“Our research shows that we can use this important role of food for consumer well-being if we emphasize that healthy eating is not only good for consumers, but also helps them impress others. results could be very important for those hoping to improve healthy eating practices in the UK because they open up a new avenue to promote the benefits of healthy eating: it’s good for you and your health, and it’s is also good for making a good impression.”

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More information:
Maferima Touré‐Tillery et al, Do you feel judged? How the presence of outgroup members promotes healthier food choices, Psychology & Marketing (2022). DOI: 10.1002/mars.21667

Provided by City University London

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