Peer Pressure Influences Menu Choices
October 27, 2013

Study Shows Peer Pressure Can Influence Culinary Choices In Restaurants

[ Watch the Video: Dining Out? Peer Pressure Affects Menu Choices ]

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

If you’re trying to eat healthy when dining out, it might be best to avoid going to restaurants with people who tend to order high-calorie, high-fat items like hot wings, bacon double cheeseburgers or chicken-fried steaks, according to a new University of Illinois study.

Brenna Ellison, a food economist at the Champaign-based institution’s Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, analyzed the lunch receipts from a full service restaurant in Oklahoma for a period of three months. She found that when groups of people ate together in a setting where they had to announce their food choices, they tended to choose items from the same menu categories.

“My conclusion from the research is that people want to be different, but not that different. 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, who presented her findings at the Agricultural and Applied Economic Association's 2013 annual meeting, said Friday in a statement.

Ellison and her colleagues divided the Stillwater, Oklahoma restaurant where the research was conducted into three sections. The first was the control group, with diners receiving menus that contained only the item and price. The second included calorie counts for each entrée, while the third had both the calorie count and a traffic light symbol that indicated caloric ranges (green indicating items containing 400 calories or less, yellow indicating items containing between 401 and 800 calories, and red indicating items containing over 800 calories.)

During the study period, Ellison also began helping out at the restaurant in order to ensure that the correct version of the menu was being used at the correct tables. She said that she would bus tables, or sometimes send in colleagues undercover to place orders, to make sure that the proper menus were being used.

Ellison also stopped by the restaurant daily to collect receipts, and often received additional insight from restaurant employees. She said that servers told her 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.”

The receipt data was analyzed using a random utility framework, where the utility (or happiness) experienced by each customer from his or her food choice depended not just on that meal’s price, calories and other characteristics, but also on the characteristics of the choices selected by his or her peers.

“The big takeaway from this research is that people were happier if they were making similar choices to those sitting around them,” Ellison explained. “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,” she added. “Given this finding, we thought it would almost be better to nudge people toward healthier friends than healthier foods.”

One important piece of information that was not analyzed in the study was which individual at each table was the first to order. Ellison said that she intends to collect that data the next time she runs this type of experiment.

“Previous studies have shown that if you don't have to order audibly, everyone just gets what they want without any peer pressure involved,” the Illinois researcher noted. “Research suggests that you should always order first because the first person is the only one who truly gets what they want.”