We eat what our friends eat, according to a new study presented at the Agricultural and Applied Economic Association’s 2013 annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I) and Oklahoma State University, provided fresh confirmation of how much our environment influences our eating habits. The scientific team analyzed the lunch receipts from a restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma that agreed to use three menus designed by the researchers for three months in 2010. One group of diners — the control group — used the restaurant’s original menus with item and price listings. The second group received menus with calorie counts and the third group used menus that had both calorie counts and a traffic light symbol designed to indicate calorie ranges. A green traffic light meant an food option was 400 calories or less, a yellow light indicated 401 calories to 800 calories and a red light was placed next to choices with more than 800 calories.
By analyzing diners’ receipts, the researchers discerned interesting patterns in what patrons ordered. They also interviewed servers and found that people who were part of larger parties and received menus with traffic lights typically ordered healthier options, which the researchers say suggests the influence of peer pressure.
The researchers then created a model to assess how customers felt about their choices. Based on the popularity of menu items, the researchers determined the probability that individuals were satisfied with their choice. Interestingly, this gauge of satisfaction was influenced by expected factors such as price and calories, but also by fellow diners’ menu choices as well. They found that even if a customer initially felt less satisfied about their choice of say, a salad, they felt better about it if their friends ordered an item within the same menu category.
“The big takeaway from this research is that people were happier if they were making similar choices to those sitting around them,” study author Brenna Ellison, an economist at the U of I, said in a statement. “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.” So if you’re hoping to eat better, try dining with friends who do too.