Eat Healthy! Everybody's Doing It!

What do you think is going to lead more students to the salad bar: telling them that most of their friends eat salad, or stating that eating salad is good for you?
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What do you think is going to lead more students to the salad bar: telling them that most of their friends eat salad, or stating that eating salad is good for you?

We know that peer pressure can push people to do the right -- or wrong -- thing. What we think is "normal" or "typical," and our perceptions of what others have and do, influences our decisions. Many campaigns encourage us to join the majority: "Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend..." and "billions and billions of people served" lead us to believe the decision has already been made by everyone, so it must be a good idea. Social psychologist Robert Cialdini showed in a series of studies that when hotel guests were told that the majority of guests reused their bath towels, they were more likely to reuse them, too. This social norm message outperformed environmental reasoning and even a promise to donate money if guests helped reduce towel laundry.

Educational information about nutrition could appeal to those seeking to eat better, but on the other hand, telling kids what's good for them might seem like unwelcome pressure, and might backfire and cause resistance rather than adoption of the good habit.

So which approach, if any, would you use?

Your Friends Eat Here

(online ahead of print) conducted an experiment in an on-campus food court in an eastern American university. The experiment took place in an area with two food stations: a salad bar and a grill area serving hamburgers, chicken tenders and fries. The 220 students who participated in the study saw one of three signs:
  1. "Every day more than 150 [name of university] students have a burger for lunch here," accompanied by the university's logo and photos of the grill area.
  2. "Every day more than 150 [name of university] students have a tossed salad for lunch here", accompanied by the university logo and photos of the salad bar.
  3. "Have a tossed salad for lunch," accompanied by a picture of the saladbar and the university's logo.

In the control condition, no signs were posted.

Message two resulted in more students choosing salad compared with the control condition. Message three, surprisingly, did not lead to significantly more salad choices compared to the control condition. Messages two and three did increase the number of salad choices when compared to the message one condition.

What if the norm isn't healthy?

The sign telling students that salad is a popular choice outperformed the message suggesting that eating salad is what they should do.

But in order to use social norm messaging, people need to believe the norm described is indeed true and real. In other words, we need to reach a point in which a majority is indeed following a positive habit in order to market the healthy choice as what everyone's doing.

When it comes to healthy eating, this is rather hard to do. Eating unhealthy, calorically-dense foods is very common in many social circles, and research even suggests weight gain "spreads" in social groups, perhaps because people tend to follow the choices of their peers.

So how can we support an "everybody's doing it" healthy behavior?

Perhaps we should look at admired groups of people in which this behavior is indeed the norm. Do actresses eat a lot of veggies? Do tennis players follow a healthy diet? I'm sure we can find a trendy group of people in which "four out of five" or at least the majority are role models for healthy eating.

And let's not forget that perceived social norms (some of them not normative at all) are also created -- quite intentionally -- by clever, repeated depiction in movies, TV, music and ads. I'd love to see healthy eating inserted into media in place of alcohol, junk food and sugary drinks.

Any suggestions?

Dr. Ayala

For more by Ayala Laufer-Cahana, M.D., click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

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