Be careful who you eat with: study says peers influence eating habits

Bussing tables might not be the most glamorous job for someone who holds a doctorate degree.

Brenna Ellison, assistant professor of Agricultural and Consumer Economics who received her doctorate at the University of Oklahoma State, navigated from one white-clothed table to the next as she rounded up dirty dishes and put down clean silverware for the next set of customers. But she was not doing it for a paycheck.

She was really at The Ranchers Club restaurant in Stillwater, Okla., for research.

According to Ellison’s findings, when people eat at restaurants, their orders are influenced by their friends’ orders. The pressure to eat healthy loosens up when others order greasy, high calorie meals. And when everyone else chooses a leafy salad, the once unappealing and dry dish seems far more delectable.

Still, restaurant-goers might not completely mimic their peers, but those around the table still influence what the waiter or waitress jots down when they take orders.

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“A lot of times we want to fit in with our friends, but we still want to show we’re not just a copycat,” Ellison said. “So we might order something a little different, like a bacon cheeseburger instead of hamburger if that’s what our friends get. But in the end, we don’t want to be so different that we stand out.”

While bussing tables, Ellison eavesdropped on chats that circulated around the tables between men dressed in suits and women draped in fancy overcoats. They talked about the menus she created. With Ellison acting as any other restaurant employee, no one could notice that she was observing them.

“Well, if you’re getting the red, then I’m going to get the red,” Ellison would hear.

The red traffic light symbol on the menu represented a high calorie meal, while the green light represented a low calorie meal. Even though customers did not like feeling force-fed due to the limited choices, they still made healthier meal choices.

But that effect was overshadowed when their friends became involved.

“No matter which menu you had, if your friends were ordering like you, you would be happier even if you were ordering unhealthy food,” Ellison said. “Maybe calorie labels don’t matter as much when you’re accounting for the effects of your friends.”

At closing time, Ellison took every receipt for the day home with her. She did this for 19 weeks.

She would even have “secret eaters” who would check if the correct menus were being used for each table.

“You wouldn’t think you would have to do all this when you think about research,” Ellison said.

The data for the study was found at the Western-style steak joint in Stillwater, with a deer antler chandelier, wall-covering display case of cowboy hats and paintings of open prairies. That started in 2010, but Ellison joined University faculty in 2012 and finished up the rest of the study in an average office in the ACES building.

She still remembers the early days of her research.

“I have a lot more respect for anyone working at a restaurant,” Ellison said.

In August, Ellison presented the study at the Agricultural and Applied Economic Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The study, which also received contributions from Jayson Lusk, has received national attention since it was released. The study is yet to be published, but Ellison hopes that all the media attention will help the study find its way into a journal.

Stanton can be reached at [email protected].