Humans are notoriously awful at monitoring what scientists refer to as "size-to-status" relationships. It's why we associate bigger cars, bigger houses, and bigger televisions with greater social position, and why we'll shell out the extra cash (which is sometimes more than we can actually afford) to snatch up some of that precious, precious status for ourselves.
Now, an international team of researchers has revealed that even our preference for supersized food and drinks may have roots in "the status-signaling value of larger options," suggesting that consumers will actually choose larger food portions in a subconscious effort to indicate to others their relative rank within a social hierarchy.
"An ongoing trend in food consumption is consumers' tendency to eat more and more," write authors David Dubois, Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky. (Dubois, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in marketing, is an assistant professor at French business school HEC Paris; Rucker and Galinsky — who both have PhDs in psychology—are both researchers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.)
"Even more worrisome," the researchers write, "the increase in food consumption is particularly prevalent among vulnerable populations such as lower socioeconomic status consumers." The researchers sought out to determine if consumers actually equate larger sizes of food with greater status. Their results were surprising. The team writes:
Whether induced in the lab or in the field, states of powerlessness led individuals to disproportionately choose larger food options from an assortment. Furthermore, this preference for larger-sized options was enhanced when consumption was public, reversed when the size-to-status relationship was negative (i.e., smaller was equated with greater status), and mediated by consumers' need for status.
In other words, social settings beget more indulgent food choices — unless the food in question is specifically recognized as one consumed in smaller portions, owing to the social context in which it is typically consumed. In one experiment, for example, test participants who were told that smaller hors d'oeuvres were served at prestigious events chose fewer, smaller items.
Sounds like Dubois, Rucker and Galinsky should team up with the folks over at Fancy Fast Food.