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Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  The social psychology of overeating

Picture this: You go out with a bunch of friends. The resolve to stick to the diet is staunch and firm. You even have a salad before leaving the house so you won’t binge on the deep fried, mayonnaise-laden, innocuous looking hors d’ oeuvres.

Hours later, you kick yourself for not sticking to your diet, for overeating, yet again. Most likely, you label yourself weak-willed, fickle and temptation prone. Sounds familiar?

No surprises there that the mere presence of food can throw diet plans into a tizzy. But really, is it just you who decide what and how much you eat? Do you really believe it’s all in your control? Social psychologists often wonder how we grossly underestimate the enormous influence that the environment has on us.

“Most of us don’t overeat because we are hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colours and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers," says Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating.

Defined as “eating more than one realizes", overeating, leading to obesity, is a concern for many. There are tons of environmental factors contributing to this, including frequent eating out.

That’s not just because restaurant food is more likely to be unhealthy or excessively calorie laden.Research shows that the mere presence of other people makes us eat more. Eating with a companion was shown to increase food intake by a 28%, going up to 76% extra food consumed if accompanied by a group of six co-diners.

So tomorrow, do your waistline a favour and skip the regular lunch and gossip session with your colleagues. But this is easier said than done, because eating is inherently a social activity for humans. Across cultures, most people devalue eating alone and do not consider it to be a “real meal". Watching what you eat is going to be infinitely more difficult with the upcoming festive season, known to wreak havoc on waistlines!

The underlying reasons behind this (unnoticed) lack of control are rather intuitive. The first is time spent. Not surprisingly, the duration of the meal increases with company. We tend to spend disproportionately more time when eating with large groups, almost 51% longer than when eating alone.

One may argue that we also eat much slower when eating with others, relishing and savoring the conversation just as much. Contrary to this belief, research shows that people do not eat any more slowly in groups and the extra time is fully dedicated to eating more, leading to an increase in food intake.

The second reason is what is called the “disinhibition hypothesis". Simply put, we do not monitor our food intake as much in others’ presence. Being with others is a distraction and makes it difficult for the brain to monitor food intake. This creates a double whammy if you have friends who lick their plates clean and order desserts after that—unknowingly compelling you to follow suit.

Of course, this disinhibition readily transitions to restraint when impression management concerns reign supreme. Eating with a potential romantic partner or future boss is sure to put a dampener on your appetite. If there is even an outside chance of being judged for food choices, women are far more likely to limit consumption to conform to “appropriate" eating behaviour.

It is not simply the quantity of food consumed, but also the type of food selected. People tend to prefer lower calorie options when they are motivated to make a positive impression. But more often than not, the presence of others is engrossing and takes focus away from feeling full.

Regardless of the type, distraction of any kind is equally effective in taking your mind off the feeling of satiation. Engaging in any task that diverts attention away from food—reading, watching television, checking Facebook—can trigger overconsumption. Your brain fails to acknowledge satiation, and continues eating.

Candle-lit dinner? Say cheers to an extra round of drinks or unplanned dessert. Live band? Another recipe for overconsumption. While soft music makes you linger longer over the meal, thus increasing the quantity consumed, loud, harsh music results in non-mindful eating.

A fascinating study showed that people who ate lunch while listening to a detective story ate 15% more than those who ate their meal in silence. What makes it worse is that distraction, because it diminishes self-monitoring, leads to eating more again after the distraction has run its course (watching TV or a movie, for example).

If all this makes you feel rather helpless, the good news is that research converges to a simple, two-step solution. Step one is to be aware that social influence can disturb your diet. Step two is to avoid all distractions and relish every morsel with gusto.

Here’s to surviving Diwali with non-expanded waistlines.

Shilpa Madan is a doctoral candidate in consumer behaviour at the Nanyang Business School, Singapore. Her research explores the myriad facets of the pursuit happiness and well-being. In her previous life, she has worked with Unilever in marketing and sales, in Singapore and India, across home and personal care.

Her Twitter handle is @Shilpa_Madan

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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