Study Shows How The Presence Of Strangers Could Affect Food Choices

Aristotle famously labeled humans as social animals, and in American culture, much of socialization centers around a meal. According to an ICSC survey, 64% of adults eat dinner out at least once every week, and nearly 50% of adults reported that they consider eating out crucial to their lifestyle. The University of Oxford reports that the more often an individual engages in social eating, the more their overall happiness and satisfaction with life increases. Sharing a meal communally, it says, nurtures feelings of connectedness and social belonging.

But, if you aren't sitting down to a big family dinner, that doesn't necessarily mean you're eating alone. Even without restaurants, the work break room, the park bench you eat your sandwich on, and the mall food court all put the solo dining experience on public display. Other people are almost always around during mealtime (even ambiently), which might have a bigger impact on the specific way you eat than it does foster a sense of community — quite the opposite, actually. A study published in the journal Psychology & Marketing led by Maferima Touré-Tillery of Northwestern University found that eating and socialization might be linked even if the eater isn't socializing at all.

Self-conscious consumers make healthier choices

According to the study, people are more likely to make healthier food choices when other people are around versus when they're by themselvesm particularly when they perceive those people as different from them. The team conducted four studies, each with different group linkage criteria: race, work affiliation, and college residence. Consumers, it explains, "anticipate more negative judgment from outgroup (vs. ingroup) audiences." So, folks are more likely to choose a salad over a burger if they're out with friends, but even more likely to do so if they're out with strangers. 

Researcher Janina Steinmetz explains the sociocultural context of the study's findings. "We know that food plays an important role in social life," she says, via HealthDay, "and consumers often make inferences about others' traits and characteristics based on their food choices." This conclusion could be used to influence marketing campaigns to promote healthy eating habits. Steinmetz suggests that, by emphasizing the social rewards of healthy food choices, consumers who might otherwise have a tough time sticking to a balanced diet could be incentivized to pick healthier options. 

Dietician Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, predicts that the popularity of recent health food trends like plant-based food alternatives, alcohol-free spirits, and oat milk will continue to be perceived as fashionable and continue to rise in 2022, via Everyday Health. The social benefits of "appearing healthy" could be more impactful to consumer behavior than outlining the physical health benefits of a good diet.