'Herd mentality' could be key to eating healthier, study suggests

Four Young Female Friends Meeting For Drinks And Food Making A Toast In Restaurant
People are more likely to make better food choices when they're in a group that promotes healthy eating. (Getty Images)

If you find it difficult to make healthy food choices, you’re not alone. In fact, finding other people who feel the same way could be the key to eating healthier, researchers have found.

Feeling like you belong to a social group can have a positive impact on your eating choices, according to a new study from Flinders University in Australia. This behaviour "builds on the age-old adage of the ‘herd mentality’", according to researchers.

People who have a sense of belonging to a group or community are more likely to make decisions based on what is "normal" in the wider collective, the study found. The researchers said this behaviour could be leveraged on when developing campaigns to encourage people to eat healthier.

Speaking to New Food Magazine, Professor Eva Kemps, from the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work, explained: "Social groups, such as one’s nationality or university, provide group members with a shared social identity, or a sense of belonging, and can influence their behaviour.

"Accordingly, when someone sees themselves as belonging to a group, and feels that their membership to the group is an important part of their identity, they are more likely to bring their behaviour in line with what is perceived as the ‘norm’ for that group.

"This has shown to be true in influencing what we eat and the food choices we make, and could have implications for the development of health campaigns and interventions that aim to promote healthier food choices."

A woman sitting at a table with her friends in a cafe, enjoying a vegan meal before ehading back to work.
Students who saw a social media post suggesting healthier meal options were more likely to select them, particularly if they felt they belonged to the group. (Getty Images)

The study involved female undergraduate students. Researchers explained that they chose women recruits "because they have previously been found to show larger modelling effects than men".

The students’ university affiliations were used to divide them into two groups, an in-group and an out-group. Participants were then shown community Facebook pages allocated to either university, with a healthy and unhealthy social norm presented to them in the form of a post about a new cafe on campus.

They were then asked to select food from an online menu for the fictional cafe, which included healthier options like grilled chicken breast wrap and sweet potato fries, versus less healthy options such as beef cheeseburger and deep-fried mozzarella sticks.

Researchers found that the students who viewed the Facebook page with the healthy social norm post ordered a significantly higher percentage of healthy food items compared to those who viewed the alternative post.

"When people are exposed to social norms on Facebook, such as what others eat, they are more likely to be influenced by someone in the same group with them than by someone who isn’t," Prof Kemps said.

"This is because people are more likely to identify with and internalise the behaviours of someone who shares a common group interest or affiliation with them, which can lead to changes in their own behaviour.

"We found that, when people felt a sense of connection or belonging, they were more likely to be influenced one way or another."

Previous studies have shown that individuals tend to model similar eating behaviours as those around them, whether in real life or on social media.

The researchers from Flinders University wrote that the findings from these studies "suggest that the tendency to model may go beyond a desire to gain social approval or to convey a positive impression to eating partners".

Dr Daniel Glazer, clinical psychologist and co-founder of US Therapy Rooms, tells Yahoo UK: "Feeling like we're part of a supportive ‘tribe’ has a tendency to cultivate this invisible accountability. We're more inclined to make choices that align with the group's values or norms.

"So if you surround yourself with people who prioritise clean eating and overall wellness, you'll likely find yourself feeling motivated to hop on that healthy bandwagon too. There's an inherent pull to conform to what your circle deems as positive or desirable conduct.

"Conversely, people struggling with unhealthy habits have been known to trace them back to feeling like an outsider or lacking that sense of belonging to a group with constructive norms. It therefore appears quite possible that lacking these positive social influences could potentially hinder our innate motivation for adopting self-care practices."

He continues: "From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, this in-group conformity served an important survival function for our ancestors. Aligning with the group's ways boosted the odds of being accepted rather than shunned or exiled. Those evolutionary hard wirings still linger in our modern psyches.

"So whether we're consciously aware of it or not, the desire for social acceptance and belonging tugs at our choices in subtle yet profound ways, potentially including what we choose to put into our bodies. Leveraging that influence could absolutely be a catalyst for healthier lifestyles or help sustain motivation for dietary overhauls."

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