How People-Pleasing May Lead to Overeating

Two new studies remind us that eating habits may be strongly influenced by people around us.

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Being a people-pleaser might make you popular at parties, but it probably isn’t doing much good for your waistline.

A new study by Case Western Reserve University researchers shows that people-pleasers tend to overeat in social settings in an effort to make other people feel more comfortable. They feel pressure to eat, whether they’re hungry or not, in order to match what people around them are eating. Problem is, they tend regret their choices later. “It doesn’t feel good to give into social pressures,” said Julie Exline, a Case Western Reserve psychologist and lead author of the study, in a statement.

The study involved 101 college students who completed a questionnaire about their people-pleasing characteristics, also known as sociotropy. Students who reported worrying about hurting other people, frequently putting others’ needs before their own and being sensitive to criticism ranked high in people-pleasing.

After the assessment, the students were seated with a female actor pretending to be another participant. The experimenter handed a bowl of M&Ms to the actor, who took about five M&Ms and then offered the bowl to the student. The student later reported how many M&Ms they took and why. Those students exhibiting high sociotropy usually took more candy.

“People-pleasers feel more intense pressure to eat when they believe that their eating will help another person feel more comfortable. Almost everyone has been in a situation in which they’ve felt this pressure, but people-pleasers seem especially sensitive to it,” said Exline, whose study was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

In a separate paper appearing online in PLoS ONE, researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands explored the effects of social eating in a different situation. They observed 70 pairs of women dining together in a lab set up to look like a restaurant. The researchers watched the women from a separate room, through a hidden camera, and recorded how many bites of food each participant took — and, importantly, when.

The researchers found that the women tended to mimic each other’s eating behavior — taking bites when their dining partner took a bite. This mimicry was three times more likely to happen at the beginning of the 20-minute meal than at the end, possibly because the women, who were strangers, were trying harder to make a good impression at the outset, the researchers surmise.

The study couldn’t say for sure that the women were synchronizing their eating in order to seem more likable, but previous research has found that the tactic works: people report greater liking for those who mimic their behavior.

Whatever the motivation, a “plethora of research has demonstrated that eating behavior is profoundly affected by social influences,” according to the authors, led by psychologist Roel Hermans. They write:

…[T]he presence of others influences the amount of food eaten in a meal. Several studies have found that people eat more in the presence of others than when alone. Likewise, an individual’s consumption can be modified by an eating companion; people tend to eat as much or as little as do those with whom they eat. … These effects have been found to be robust and to override strong physiological influences.

Neither study looked at the impact of social eating on weight gain or obesity, but the findings jibe with previous research on how obesity travels through social networks. People who have overweight or obese friends and family members are more likely to become obese themselves, compared with those who surround themselves with thin people.

So, especially for people-pleasers with weight problems, it might be a good idea to be more conscious of eating habits in social situations. Just remember, there’s no harm in passing up that extra cookie. Who knows, there may be another people-pleaser who will thank you for it.