Social Overeating

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

Two new studies explore the tendency to overeat in social situations. Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, paired women who had not previously met and monitored them as they shared a meal together. The scientists were studying behavioral mimicry, in which a person unwittingly imitates the behavior of another. In this study, the women did mimic each other’s eating behavior virtually bite for bite, including taking bites at the same time. Both members of a pair were influenced by the other member, and the mimicry was stronger at the beginning of the meal, diminishing towards the end of the meal. Since the women were new acquaintances, researchers think they may have unintentionally observed each other’s eating behavior in order to establish a matching pattern, unconsciously seeking to facilitate the social connection. That could shed light on why the mimicry subsided as they got to know each other during the course of the meal.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, found that "people pleasers" (persons who are sensitive to criticism, who put other people’s needs ahead of their own, and who worry about hurting other people’s feelings) tend to overeat in certain social situations. Each study volunteer was seated alone with an actor posing as just another study volunteer. The actor took a few pieces of candy from a bowl, then offered the candy bowl to the study volunteer. Being a people pleaser was associated with eating more candy. Lead author, psychologist Julie Exline, said, "People pleasers feel more intense pressure to eat when they believe that their eating will help another person feel more comfortable."

Both of these studies serve as useful reminders to eat mindfully in social settings.

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