Mind & Body

This Concept Explains Why You Order Junk Food After Your Friends Do

One would hardly think ordering that double-bacon, super-cheesy chili-burger would have anything to do with altruism, but according to researchers, that's exactly what it is — if your buddy orders first, anyway. See, when a friend of yours orders something unhealthy at the counter, it is much more likely that you'll follow suit, according to a study published last year at Seoul National University. The researchers even concluded that your motivation for this isn't gluttony or laziness or even a desire for your friend to approve of what you order. Instead, they found that empathy was the primary motivator. The researchers even assigned a name to this phenomenon: altruistic indulgence.

I'll Have What She's Having

For the first part of their study, researchers led by Professor Youjae Yi obtained 649 receipts from a large coffee shop at a university in Korea in order to examine customers' ordering patterns. They found that for people ordering coffee by themselves — which totaled 419 receipts — people bought high-calorie items about as often as they bought low-calorie items. Half chose a healthier option and half chose to indulge. If someone was with another person and ordered first, the 50-50 statistic also held up. In the 230 two-person orders that were examined, half of the first orders were healthy, half were unhealthy.

But in the half of those orders that were unhealthy, the ratios changed when it came to the second order. When the first order was something high calorie, that customer's companion ordered a high-calorie item 80 percent of the time, developing what the researchers referred to as the "indulgent companion complex."

Unfortunately, when the first person orders a healthy drink, they don't have quite the same effect on their companion. The research found that when the first person ordered something low-cal, the second person ordered in kind just 60 percent of the time, which was statistically insignificant. So either healthier drinks don't quite hold the same power over us, or no one really digs the university's kale smoothies.

Goodness or Gluttony?

Okay, so we know that one person getting a high-calorie drink has a big influence on the next person, but how can we be sure what their motivation was? After all, it could be a desire for approval or just regular old-fashioned indulgence. What if people are using their buddy's gluttony as an excuse?

To dive deeper into this question, the research team performed another experiment where they gave 174 American women an online quiz about a handful of eating scenarios. As in the first study, the researchers found that when a participant's friend ordered an unhealthy meal, the participant was significantly more likely to order something indulgent.

But this time, the researchers also asked the participants why they ordered the unhealthy food. After their meal selection, the participants reported how much their choice was about acceptance or empathy by rating how much they agreed with statements like "I made my food decision hoping my friend would like me" and "I made my food decision to make my friend feel comfortable about her food choice."

When the researchers crunched the numbers, they found that, sure enough, the biggest motivator behind the participants' meal choices was the desire to make their friend feel better about her choice. In other words, they said that they chose to eat the way they did so that their friend wouldn't feel bad for ordering something unhealthy. Because the participant was taking their companion's feelings into consideration at the time, their choice seemed unlikely to just be an excuse to eat junk food.

So the next time you make an unhealthy choice after your friend does, just remind yourself that it's about altruism, and not the alluring smell of that double-bacon, super-cheesy chili burger. Good thing your friend ordered it first.

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Having trouble with overindulging? Take a psychological approach with "Eat by Choice, Not by Habit: Practical Skills for Creating a Healthy Relationship With Your Body and Food" by Sylvia Haskvitz, M.A., R.D. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker May 1, 2019

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