Vanderbilt marketing research shows how our peers influence our food choices

Recent research from Vanderbilt Professor of Marketing Kelly Haws shows that consumers are likely to match their peers on certain aspects of ordering food but not others

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Vanderbilt marketing research shows how our peers influence our food choices

Two bowls of Jeni's ice cream (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Two bowls of Jeni's ice cream (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Emily Gonçalves

Two bowls of Jeni's ice cream (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Emily Gonçalves

Emily Gonçalves

Two bowls of Jeni's ice cream (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Lila Johnson and Anika Park

You walk into Jeni’s Ice Creams with your roommate prepared to order a double scoop of chocolate ice cream—but then your roommate settles with a single scoop of strawberry. Next thing you know, you’re at the cash register holding a single scoop of chocolate instead of the double scoop you initially planned. Sound familiar? Vanderbilt Professor of Marketing at the Owen Graduate School of Management Kelly Haws’s research found that we conform with our peers on numbers-based aspects of food orders but not quality-based aspects, such as flavor, in order to prevent social discomfort.

Haws, along with colleagues Peggy Liu from the University of Pittsburgh and Brent McFerren from Simon Frasier University, conducted an experiment to explore this phenomenon: selective peer pressure on our food choices. Haws said their study aimed to tackle questions about how we eat when we’re with others and how our choices are impacted by what others do. They reported results from their Jul. 22 study forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research. According to the study, these findings can help business managers predict choices of consumers.

The research found that consumers are more likely to adjust their own choices to match others’ if the options can be ranked. For example, the single scoop and double scoop ice creams differ in ice cream quantity, so they can be ranked. These qualities are called ‘ordinal attributes;’ other examples include quantitative values like price or calorie count. However, consumers will less often match others’ choices on attributes that cannot be ranked, such as flavor. These qualities are called ‘nominal attributes.’

According to the study, the reason that a consumer might choose to match their peers on ordinal attributes is not necessarily because a certain choice is better, but rather to minimize social discomfort. 

Haws uses the example of visiting an ice cream shop with a friend to illustrate her findings. In this example, the ordinal attribute is the size of the ice cream cone (one scoop, two scoops, and so on). The nominal attribute is the flavor of ice cream you choose. In this scenario, you decided to maintain your flavor choice because preferences in flavors are based on personal taste rather than an objective value. However, you settle with a single-scoop to match your roommate. According to Haws, this could be because you want to match your friend’s choice when it comes to money, healthiness or some other aspect to avoid social discomfort.  Maybe you don’t want to spend too much money on ice cream relative to your roommate. Or maybe you don’t want to feel too unhealthy with that extra scoop. 

The reasoning behind this choice matching is rooted in consumers making inferences about the social setting based on the choices of their peers. In turn, consumers modify their behaviors to match the interpreted occasion. 

“I would infer from [you ordering a small] that we’re enjoying some ice cream, but we’re not over-indulging,” Haws said. “On the flip side of that, if you’ve ordered the two-scoop ice cream, I can make the inference that maybe we’re celebrating, we’re really going for it.” 

Haws notes that our choices may also be influenced by other factors, such as a power dynamic between you and your peer. For example, if you are out to lunch with a friend, your propensity to match them may be less than if you were out to lunch with a potential employer. These factors, however, were not taken into account for this experiment.

While Haws and her colleagues focused mainly on food choices, the research could be applied to other types of consumer choice, opening up pathways for further research.

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