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Powerless consumers may overeat, driving obesity

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Eating super size portions may be driven by feelings of powerlessness

Researchers say consumers who feel powerless eat more. Chicago scientists note that an increasing trend to eat more is seen especially in vulnerable lower socioeconomic groups who may equate size of food portions with power, which in turn leads to higher rates of obesity.

"An ongoing trend in food consumption is consumers' tendency to eat more and more," write authors David Dubois (HEC Paris), Derek D. Rucker, and Adam D. Galinsky from Northwestern University.

Even more worrisome, the increase in food consumption is particularly prevalent among vulnerable populations such as lower socioeconomic status consumers."

The scientists hypothesized people who feel powerless from socioeconomic woes would indeed eat more, so they conducted experiments that revealed they were on target.

In one experiment they found consumers felt a person who chooses a large coffee had a higher social status, even though the cost for a smaller coffee was the same.

They also found consumers who feel powerless ate bigger portions of bagels, compared to baseline study participants.

People who have no control over their socioeconomic status were more likely to choose larger smoothies in public versus when they were alone. The stress of being in debt can drive obesity, shown in past studies.

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"Understanding and monitoring the size-to-status relationship of food options within an assortment is an important tool at the disposal of policy makers to effectively fight against overconsumption," the authors conclude.

In another experiment, the researchers proved size-to status is important to consumers. They told study participants that low calorie; small hors d'oeuvres are served at prestigious events.

The people in the study ate less when they associated smaller food portions with power. The finding is published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Right now, the message from marketers is that bigger anything is better, whether it be cars, homes, television screens…or food.

If we can just get food advertisers to convince the public that eating smaller food portions is prestigious, it may be possible to curb obesity rates and shrink waistlines back to normal.

The finding is especially important for targeted educational campaigns geared lower socioeconomic groups who may be more prone to obesity. The study shows people who feel powerless eat larger food portions.

Journal of Consumer Research
"Super Size Me: Product Size as a Signal of Status"
David Dubois, et al.
August, 2011

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