Peer pressure can influence food choices at restaurants

October 25, 2013

If you want to eat healthier when dining out, research recommends surrounding yourself with friends who make healthy food choices. A University of Illinois study showed that when groups of people eat together at a restaurant at which they must state their food choice aloud, they tend to select items from the same menu categories.

"My conclusion from the research is that people want to be different, but not that different," said U of I food economist Brenna Ellison. "We want to fit in with the people we're dining with. It goes against the expectation that people will exhibit variety-seeking behavior; we don't want to be that different from others."

Ellison analyzed the lunch receipts from a full-service in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for a period of three months. One section of the restaurant was the control group, with guests receiving menus with the item and price only. Another section received menus with calorie counts for each entrée. And a third section had both the calorie count and a traffic light symbol that indicated caloric ranges: green traffic light items contained 400 or less, yellow light items had between 401 and 800 calories, and red light items contained more than 800 calories.

Although the data in the research were based on information from the paper receipts, because the research hinged on each of the three versions of the menus being used at specific tables in the restaurant, Ellison also went undercover at the restaurant to observe.

"I would help bus tables sometimes so that I could watch and make sure that the tables were getting the right menus," Ellison said. "Or I would send people in as 'secret eaters.' They could eat whatever they wanted. I just wanted to make sure that they got the right menu for that section."

Because she stopped by the restaurant every day to pick up receipts, Ellison said she was able to get additional information directly from the servers. "They said that people talked about the traffic lights a lot. And we did find that larger tables which received the traffic light menus did order fewer calories, on average, which suggests there was some peer pressure to order lower-calorie items," she said.

Receipt data was analyzed using a random utility framework, where the utility, or happiness, each individual receives from his or her depends not only on the characteristics of that choice (such as item price, calories, etc.), but also on the characteristics of the choices of one's peers.

"The big takeaway from this research is that people were happier if they were making similar choices to those sitting around them," Ellison 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 money.

"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."

One piece of information that wasn't included in the data is who ordered first at each table. Ellison said she wants to have this piece of information the next time she runs a similar experiment. "Previous studies have shown that if you don't have to order audibly, everyone just gets what they want without any involved," she said. "Research suggests that you should always order first because the first person is the only one who truly gets what they want."

"I'll Have What He's Having": Group Ordering Behavior in Food Choice Decisions was presented at the Agricultural and Applied Economic Association's 2013 annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Jayson Lusk contributed to the conceptualization of the work. Ellison gathered the data while at Oklahoma State University but did the analysis in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the U of I.

Explore further: Symbols, such as traffic lights, on menus effective in educating diners

Related Stories

Symbols, such as traffic lights, on menus effective in educating diners

March 13, 2013
A little-noticed provision of the Affordable Care Act requires all chain restaurants and retail food establishments with 20 or more locations to list calorie counts on their menus. But according to research co-written by ...

Fighting obesity with apps and websites

August 19, 2013
A pending component of health care reform would require restaurants and vending machines to list calorie information on menus to help fight obesity.

Recommended calorie information on menus does not improve consumer choices, study shows

July 18, 2013
Despite the lack of any concrete evidence that menu labels encourage consumers to make healthier food choices, they have become a popular tool for policymakers in the fight against obesity.

Menu labels displaying amount of exercise needed to burn calories show benefits

April 23, 2013
More restaurants are displaying calorie information on their menus than ever before. It's not a coincidence; by law, retail food establishments that are part of a chain with twenty or more locations nationwide must disclose ...

Despite menu changes, calorie and sodium levels in chain restaurant entrees remain the same overall

October 1, 2013
Although a number of chain restaurants have announced healthy menu changes over the years, the overall calorie and sodium levels in main entrees offered by top U.S. chain restaurants assessed from 2010 to 2011 have remained ...

Fast food menus still pack a lot of calories, study finds

November 13, 2012
With grilled chicken, salads and oatmeal now on fast food menus, you might think fast food has become healthier. And indeed, there has been greater attention in the media and legislatively, paid to the healthfulness of fast ...

Recommended for you

Sugar not so sweet for mental health

July 27, 2017
Sugar may be bad not only for your teeth and your waistline, but also your mental health, claimed a study Thursday that was met with scepticism by other experts.

Could insufficient sleep be adding centimeters to your waistline?

July 27, 2017
Adults in the UK who have poor sleep patterns are more likely to be overweight and obese and have poorer metabolic health, according to a new study.

Vitamin E-deficient embryos are cognitively impaired even after diet improves

July 27, 2017
Zebrafish deficient in vitamin E produce offspring beset by behavioral impairment and metabolic problems, new research at Oregon State University shows.

The role of dosage in assessing risk of hormone therapy for menopause

July 27, 2017
When it comes to assessing the risk of estrogen therapy for menopause, how the therapy is delivered—taking a pill versus wearing a patch on one's skin—doesn't affect risk or benefit, researchers at UCLA and elsewhere ...

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.