Consumers Try to Supersize Their Status By Eating More

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Is a triple cheeseburger the poor man’s limousine? According to a new study, consumers who feel powerless in society — often those with low socioeconomic status — may be likely to choose bigger food portions, given the opportunity, because they feel it boosts their social standing.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, expands on the notion that bigger is better. That cultural norm tends to be true of certain products: a bigger car, house or TV set is usually associated with higher status. But the researchers found that the same phenomenon extends to food portions too.

In one experiment, people were asked to rate the status of consumers based only on whether they chose small, medium or large food items like pizza or coffee — things you wouldn’t traditionally associate with social status. The participants consistently judged the consumers who went big as being more respected, even when it was noted that all the foodstuffs, regardless of size, were free.

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In another experiment, people who were made to feel powerless themselves tended to choose larger-sized smoothies or other food items — especially when they were asked to imagine themselves in social situations or eating in public. Ordering a bigger pizza pie when out with friends can serve the same psychological need as toting a fake Louis Vuitton bag around the mall, says researcher Derek Rucker, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.

“When I’m deprived, I have a need, at least for a moment, to get rid of that discrepancy between who I’d like to be and who I am right now,” says Rucker. “And supersizing provides one opportunity.”

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Of course, that solution is fleeting and potentially counterproductive in the long run, given that consistent supersizing is likely to make you fat and sick, and that the better opportunities in life are typically afforded to healthier, more attractive people. But, Rucker says, it still provides a “momentary catharsis,” and people who are less accustomed to the feeling may be more likely to opt for a short-term fix. (Meanwhile, the uber-rich, bored with quantity, may yearn for the status conveyed by scarcity — paying $2,000 a pound for some exotic truffle, for instance.)

A desire for status isn’t the only reason a person would opt for a bigger portion, but it does jibe with other theories of basic human motivation. According to psychologist Steven Reiss, humans are driven by “16 basic desires,” a comprehensive list of the unavoidable wants that make us who we are. Chief among them: power, independence, status, honor and — fittingly — eating.

The new findings also jibe with statistics on obesity. Rates are ballooning across the country, with more than 25% of people in 38 states now considered obese. But they’re particularly high among low-income households. Families who earn less than $15,000 a year have a 34% obesity rate, compared with 25% for households bringing in more than $50,000. In the past 20 years, the researchers note, standard portions have gotten more generous too, with your typical soda increasing about 52% in size and hamburgers beefing up by about 23%.

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For policy makers and health advocates like First Lady Michelle “Let’s Move!” Obama, there may be some inspiration here for new messaging. Rucker suggests emphasizing the benefits of being fit and healthy rather than the dangers of being fat — working to prevent overconsumption by appealing to consumers’ social aspirations.

In another experiment in the study, the researchers tried to reverse the bigger-is-better trend by purposefully associating higher status with smaller items. Groups of participants were given hors d’oeuvres of various sizes. Some were told that presidential soirees and the like typically serve small treats, while local book clubs would serve larger ones; others were told the opposite. And they found that the participants who rated themselves as feeling more powerless ate whichever size was supposedly associated with the fancier shindig.

Advertisers could use the information for less benevolent purposes, appealing to consumers’ tendency toward self-pity to trigger indulgent behavior. In one experiment, the researchers found that people consumed more and bigger bagel samples if the food was given away under a banner that read “We all feel powerless in the morning” rather than “We all feel powerful in the morning.”

But conscious consumers can better thwart such campaigns. The implications of the study for the average eater, Rucker says, are all about self-awareness. “We really don’t know all the things that drive our behavior,” he says. If, for example, someone cuts us off in traffic on the way to work, leaving us feeling powerless, and we end up eating more potato skins later that day, few would consider a connection. “We need to educate ourselves and understand all these subtle influences,” he says.

It goes against a basic thread of American thinking, but sometimes smaller is better.

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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