Why a cheering crowd can push men to overeat

Study shows men are prone to overeating when spectators are involved, for reasons that differ from women.

–By Hedwig Ens

Men are more prone to overeating when there are spectators involved, recent explorative research in Frontiers in Nutrition shows. Competitive visibility leads male competitive eaters to devour approximately four times as many chicken wings as the similar control group. The researchers highlight the importance of this result for male dining behavior at highly visible social situations such as parties, banquets, receptions, and group dinners.

The study shows that the competition effect makes both men and women eat significantly more than the control group. However, when a cheering crowd was added to the competition, male and female contestants reacted differently. Exhibitionism seem to motivate men.

Brian Wansink and his colleague Kevin Kniffin at Cornell University, divided their volunteers into three treatment groups: competitors in a chicken-wing eating contest, competitors-with-cheering-spectators in a chicken-wing eating contest, and a non-competing control group invited to eat chicken wings. Participants were competing for a $ 1.29 medal during their 30-minute eating session, and were supplied with an unlimited supply of chicken wings along with French fries, coleslaw, and soft drinks. They were informed, however, that the competition was solely based on the number of chicken wings consumed.

“We looked at how feeling competitive triggers competitive eating. When the competition became even more salient due to the cheering crowd, it encouraged competition, and men ate 30% more chicken wings. Surprisingly enough though, the added attention backfired among the female competitors: they ate less in the presence of a cheering crowd than without cheering crowd,” says Wansink.

The scientists describe that during the debriefing of the participants, the women in the competition condition mentioned feeling “self-conscious” and “a little bit embarrassed”. Men, on the other hand, used more positive connotations as “challenging”, “cool”, and “exhilarating”.

To measure the perception towards male and female competitive eaters, the researchers asked men and women what they thought of people who had this tremendous eating capacities.

“We asked them to rate the competitors for attractiveness, strength, and expected reproductive fitness. Men tended to rate the competing men very positively, as if to say ‘if you can eat a lot, you are a ‘real man’, you will have more children, and have an increased likelihood of winning a fistfight’. Women, on the other hand, did not think the same at all, and did not provide significantly different estimates of offspring count or general strength for male competitive eaters. This goes back to the idea that we as guys spent most of their lives trying to impress women by showing off, but don’t know how to do it, ” explains Wansink.

This research was conducted at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, where they use the tools of behavioral science to uncover solutions to improve eating environments and help individuals eat better. As director, Brian Wansink does take his research home.

“Of course this can also happen to me, so that’s why I try to carefully choose my eating locations when in a social environment. So, when I am with a group of people, I will not go to an all-you-can-eat place, as I will eat more than normal. Instead, I will go to a place where the amounts of food per plate are fixed. And secondly, when I am finding myself all excited in the kitchen talking with my friends about the greatest footballer or movie, I always ask if we can continue the conversation on the back porch, where we don’t instantly have access to snacks and beer,” he says.

Wansink is confident that this explorative study stimulates more research. “That’s why we decided to publish in this open access journal. We want to make the results accessible for everyone to download, so that it can ignite research and push things forward.”

Video granted by the authors: https://youtu.be/1Djl-KLqGg8

This research was published in the Research Topic “Unravelling social norm effects: How and when social norms affect eating behavior”. This Topic gathered papers covering social norm interventions in the domain of eating behavior.

Read the full article: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnut.2016.00051/full


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