Consumers choose healthier food in front of an audience

We are more likely to opt for healthy food when we are with people from different social groups. Why? Because we fear being judged negatively for our choices, according to new research from Bayes Business School in London.

Data from studies on around 1,000 individuals found participants were more likely to choose a healthy snack in the presence of an observer of a different race (as opposed to the same race) or one affiliated with a different university (as opposed to their own university). This was because they anticipated more negative judgment from an outsider group, and attempted to mitigate these judgments by making healthier food choices.

In one experiment, 180 students were offered the choice between indulgent M&Ms and healthier raisins as a snack. When with an unknown fellow student from their own university, 12% of students selected the healthier raisins. But this number more than doubled to 31% when in the presence of an unknown student from another university.

A different experiment involved 200 consumers who were told that others around them were judgemental or were tolerant. In the judgemental environment, consumers were more likely to choose carrots over cookies than in the tolerant environment.

What does this mean for the advertising sector?

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The findings mean that companies selling foods known to be on the unhealthy side, could look to target consumers who are shopping or ordering solo. Assuming the results can be applied to goods and services other than food, the same could theoretically apply.

On a more wholesome note, we can tap into the evidence that people make healthier choices if they are with people they don’t know.

“We know that food plays an important role in social life and consumers often make inferences about others’ traits and characteristics based on their food choices,” says Dr Janina Steinmetz who is involved in the studies.

“Our research shows that we can use this important role of food for consumer welfare if we highlight that healthy food is not only good for consumers, but also helps them to impress others.

“These findings could be very significant to those hoping to improve healthy eating practices in the UK because they open a new avenue to promote the benefits of healthy eating: It’s good for you and your health, and it’s also good for making a positive impression.”

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