Self-control is hugely important within our society and emphasis for us to control ourselves is placed on us from a young age (Vaughn, 1986). Self-control plays an extremely important role when it comes to decisions regarding food. In today’s society where health, weight and diets hold great importance, self-control seems to be imperative. However, how can social proof affect your self-control and thereby eating behaviour?
Social proof is Cialdini’s (2001) concept that we rely on others to help us make informed decisions as we feel safety in numbers. This is accentuated when we are in an uncertain situation and when those we are looking at are similar to us. A study conducted by Salmon, Fennis, de Ridder, Adriaanse and de Vet (2014) investigated the role between social proof and eating behaviour, mediated by self-control levels.
Participants were randomly assigned to a low or high self-control condition which was experimentally induced by completing the E-crossing task (an ego-depletion task). They then had to choose which they would prefer out of six product pairs (one healthy and one unhealthy). Some participants saw the social proof heuristic which was associated with the healthy options by placing a pie chart beside each product pair which indicated that the majority of previous participants (between 65%-85%) had chosen the healthy food, although which was the healthy option was not explicitly stated.
When there was no social proof, low self-control participants opted for the unhealthy options more often. However, when social proof was paired with the healthy food, even low self-control participants were more likely to choose the healthy item (Figure 2). Thus, self-control’s role on food choices can be reversed when the influence of social proof is present, but only if people have low self-control.
This is because we look to other’s like us when making decisions, especially in ambiguous situations. Here, participant’s had a choice of a healthy or unhealthy food and used the concept of social proof to inform their decision. The fact that the ‘previous participants’ were also students who had chosen to participate impacted the participants’ decision more because they were similar. It has been found that decisions of low self-control individuals may be more affected by situational influences (Fennis et al., 2009) and thus the social proof had more of an impact on their behaviour.
This study emphasises that the most effective way to refuse an option which is in conflict with a long-term goal is to provide social proof. It suggests that healthy eating interventions should use others as examples for effective results. Coupling social proof (a healthy ‘pick of the day’ sandwich) with scarcity (only having a few of these out) and authority (endorsed by a famous dietician) would make it even more effective.
Thus, the best way to eat healthily is to see or even think that others are eating healthily. Or you could just eat whatever you want.
Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Fennis, B. M., Janssen, L., & Vohs, K. D. (2009). Acts of benevolence: A limited-resource account of compliance with charitable requests. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 906-924.
Salmon, S.J., Fennis, B. M., de Ridder, D. T. D., Adriaanse, M. A., & de Vet, E. (2014). Health on impulse: when low self-control promotes healthy food choices. Health Psychology, 33, 103-109.
Vaughn, B. E., Kopp, C. B., Krakow, J. B., Johnson, K., & Schwartz, S. S. (1968). Process analyses of the behaviour of very young children in delay tasks. Developmental Psychology, 22, 752-759.
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