Social norms can influence consumption of risky foods

Who can make you eat pink burgers or raw chicken? Your future in-laws, research shows.

Even if you know and think that eating certain foods is risky, social norms governing the eating situation may make you eat them anyway.

Social norms, such as the expectation to be polite and to consume the food offered to you at a garden party, can function as an overriding force over your fears of being sick.

In a recently published study, Nina Veflen, a professor at BI Norwegian Business School and senior scientist at Nofima, along with her co-authors from the University of Zurich and Nofima, found that risk perception and social norms clash to the forces that influence the consumption of risky foods, such as pink burgers, undercooked chicken, and moldy bread.

In-laws: number one cause of pressure-feeding

The researchers conducted three studies. In the first study, they investigated how norm strength, measured in terms of perceived pressure to conform to a particular social norm, varies between different social situations, such as being a guest, eating at home, or dining out.

They found that the strength of the norm depended on a set of situational characteristics.

Of these, expected sanctions if you violate the social norm and empathy with the person(s) in the role of host of the social situation had the strongest effects.

Among the 17 situations evaluated, being invited for the first time to one’s future in-laws is the situation where the perceived pressure to conform to the social norm is the strongest.

The consequences of not eating the food served to us are considered serious and the situation in general as unknown and unpleasant.

We could imagine that in this situation, the anticipated cost of eating something hated was weighed against the anticipated cost of being judged rude, rude, or in the worst case, like an unsuitable son or daughter-in-law. “

Nina Veflen, Professor, BI Norwegian Business School

Empathy makes us eat

Another situation with very high social pressure was the scenario of an enthusiastic 13-year-old girl serving a dish she had made herself. In this situation, our feelings of empathy were decisive.

At the other end of the scale, eating something we don’t like is highly unlikely when we’re home alone, a nice, familiar situation with no witnesses and no serious social consequences.

Next, the scientists investigated how willingness to eat 15 different foods (ranging from moldy to fresh bread and rare to well-done burgers) related to perceived risk in situations characterized by low and high social pressure.

They found that people were more willing to accept offered food, including food they deem unsafe, in a situation of high social pressure.

“I find it interesting that even something as disgusting as moldy bread is more likely to be eaten in a high-pressure situation, like when you meet your in-laws for the first time,” the researcher continues.

Finally, they tested the simultaneous effects of social norms and risk perception on risk taking. They found that fear of getting sick from food and social norms exert simultaneous adverse effects on the likelihood of eating risky foods.

In practice, this means that when people can refuse foods they deem risky when served in restaurants, they may be prepared to eat them in situations of high social pressure, such as on the first visit to your home. future in-laws.

just say no

These findings are new and have implications for the design of consumer food safety messages. Informing or scaring people won’t always make them avoid risky foods, as social pressure can be a stronger force in some situations.

Therefore, we need interventions that weaken the social norms governing the situation.

“We need to develop food safety interventions that change the strength of standards and/or reduce compliance with standards to influence consumer risk taking. In other words, we need to enable people to simply say no to something that they would rather not eat,” adds Nina Veflen.


Journal reference:

Veflen, N. et al. (2020) Situated Risk to Food Security and the Influence of Social Norms. Risk analysis.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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