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by Mia Serabian


Eating is largely a social activity. Food is at the center of most celebrations, religious gatherings, and cultural activities. Weekends revolve around brunch, birthdays around cake, and holidays like Passover and Easter around Seder plates and colored eggs. Because we often eat with others, what we eat is susceptible to social influence. What does this mean? Generally, it means that we often look to those around us - our eating companions - to determine how much food, or what type of food, is normal and acceptable to eat. This is called social modeling, and its effect on eating behaviors has been proven repeatedly over the past four decades.
Earlier this year, the journal Appetite published an expansive review on social modeling of eating. (Cruwys et al. 2015) Sixty-nine studies published from 1974 to 2014 were included. Though the participants and conditions varied among the studies, all but five of those included in the review found that social modeling had a significant effect on eating.

The effect of social modeling on the amount people ate was so robust that individual factors such as sex, age, weight, hunger level, and impulsivity had little to no impact. (Cruwys et al. 2015) Furthermore, reviewers concluded that social modeling was able to significantly affect the person eating, whether the person setting the eating norm to the experimenter’s specifications was physically present or not. The eater could be alone and still feel effected by perceived social norms. All the experimenters had to do was present the eater with information about how much food the previous participants ate, and they would usually follow suit. That means that people are not necessarily modeling eating behavior to fit in or appear more likeable. Instead, evidence suggests that people are seeking a point of reference—they are looking for information from those around them to confirm how much they should or should not eat.(Cruwys et al. 2015)

So what about food choices? Clearly social modeling significantly affects the amount of food we consume, but is modeling able to influence the type of food we go for? This is a complicated question—and one that needs further research. Most studies to date have focused on food intake, not on food choices. Based on the evidence that does exist, researchers aren’t sure that social modeling is as powerful for food choices. Why is this? Researchers suggest that while people are often unsure of just how much food is normal to consume, they are much more confident in what type of food they like or dislike. (Cruwys et al. 2015) Therefore, they are less likely to seek guidance on exactly what they eat.

Why does this matter? Even if the jury’s still out on food choices, we know social influences have a considerable effect on eating behavior. Moreover, existing research has shown that both obesity and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are affected by social networks. But what if we could harness this effect for good? Past studies have proven that parents, community leaders, and even peers can serve as healthy eating and food models, creating larger supportive networks of positive influence. (Cruwys et al. 2015) Clearly modeling has an effect — our goal should be to make it a good one.

 


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