When you're sharing a platter of food with a group of people, you usually model how much you're eating off the group — take too much and you're a glutton, too little and you may feel you aren't getting your fair share. This observation has led some researchers to ask, "Is gluttony contagious?" And if so, could controlling your food intake be as well?

Jesse Singal from NYMag writes that a group of researchers conducted a meta-analysis on a series of 38 studies that looked into how people's food intake is modeled on others. The researchers wrote in their paper, published in the journal Social Influence, where they found:

“Social factors play an important role in dictating how much food people will eat in a given situation.”

They report that social modeling does a significantly better job of reducing people's appetites than, say, telling someone in a lab how the previous person ate. According to Singal, the latter has about the “same effect as having you participate in the experiment while someone scarfs down the cookies from across the table.” Indeed, in social settings, eating more than your friends could be defined as excessive eating — no one wants to eat the last chip in the basket, after all. For instance, the researchers write:

“When the model eats very little, this sets a relatively low ceiling for acceptable food intake, leading people to suppress their food intake relative to how much they would eat if they were alone. In contrast, when the model eats a great deal, people essentially have the freedom to eat as much as they typically would and may even have permission to eat somewhat more than they typically would (as indicated by the relatively small difference between the high-intake conditions and the eat-alone control condition).”

The researchers conclude that social modeling could help aid the efforts of people trying to lose weight and eat healthy. They write:

“Efforts to help people eat a healthy diet might potentially include using social models to promote the consumption of healthy foods, as well as helping people discern when a model's food intake is an appropriate guide to behavior and when it is not.”

Read more at NYMag or read the entire study at Social Influence.

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