Last time you grabbed takeout, did you pay attention to how many people were around you? Probably not. But if you’re watching your waistline, you may want to start taking notice. New research suggests that the size of the crowd impacts the number of calories you consume.
A sandwich inspired Stefan J. Hock, assistant professor of marketing at George Mason University School of Business, for his latest research. While waiting in line at Subway to buy a six-inch sub as a doctoral student, inspiration hit.
Hock said, “I entered the restaurant and I realized that it was very crowded. The lines still moved rather quickly and after less than 10 minutes I was able to order my sandwich. I paid for it, walked up to my office, and realized that I just bought a foot-long sandwich. I instantly realized that something interesting had happened, because we as researchers in the social sciences are trained to think about subtle influences and sub-conscious decisions. I wanted to buy a small sandwich, but I ended up buying a large one. If it happened to me, I was convinced that it must happen to ‘regular’ customers as well.”
Hock said for the next three years he tried to explain to himself why he ordered the larger sandwich. Together with Rajesh Bagchi of Virginia Tech, Hock and Bagchi conducted numerous surveys, including two through Sodexo’s restaurants on Mason’s campus, in order to validate their hypothesis.
“Consumer behavior is often influenced by subtle environmental cues, such as temperature, color, lighting, scent, or sound. We explored the effects of a not-so-subtle cue—human crowding—on calorie consumption,” Hock said.
He said the reason for the increase in calorie consumption is because crowding increases distraction, which in turn hampers cognitive thinking, increasing affective processing. In other words, in crowded environments, people make decisions based on feelings and taste (affect) rather than based on analysis and reason-based thinking (cognition). “When given a choice between several different options, people select and eat higher-calorie items, but when presented with only one option, people eat more of the same food item,” said Hock.
For businesses, this research is quite applicable. Hock said, “Restaurants may be able to influence consumption by manipulating the available space. For example, even when a restaurant is not very crowded, seating consumers close to each other may increase crowding perceptions and calorie consumption. This also suggests that it may be more beneficial for restaurants to carry larger assortments of high calorie foods if they are usually more crowded.”
As for consumers, knowing the effects of crowds on meal choices may sway what they choose. With today’s obesity epidemic, this research could influence the structure of public spaces, for example, increasing the space of restaurants or food courts could reduce consumers’ perceived crowding, which in turn might decrease the risk of overeating.
Hock said, “Our findings are especially important given that the world’s population reached a staggering seven billion in 2007, and is steadily on the rise. Global urbanization will unavoidably increase crowding in public consumption settings. Thus, a better understanding of how crowding impacts food consumption decisions may provide one avenue for a healthier lifestyle.”
Hock and Bagchi recently published their research in a paper titled “The Impact of Crowding on Calorie Consumption” in the Journal of Consumer Research, a top journal in their field.