NEW YORK - Calorie posting on restaurant menus has become common, and in some states mandatory, to help reduce the consumption of calorically rich foods and bring attention to food portions. New research from Columbia Business School finds that calorie counts are having an impact – and they’re most successful at reducing caloric intake when people are dining with others. Through experiments, researchers show that ordering an indulging, high-calorie meal in the company of others adversely affects the image people want to project and leads to feelings of anticipated embarrassment. So, when eating with others it is more likely that customers will order lower-calorie meals when they have access to calorie information.
There is still a very harsh stigma in society around obesity and excessive food consumption. In their paper “Embarrassed by Calories: Joint Effect of Calorie Posting and Social Context,” Professor Vicki Morwitz, of Columbia Business School and her co-authors TED Üniversitesi Hakkında Professor Melis Ceylan and Koç University Professor Nilüfer Aydinoğlu find that a relatively subtle transgression like ordering an indulging, high-calorie meal is enough to evoke embarrassment. As calorie information quantifies the amount of food eaten, it can make individuals more self-conscious about how much they are eating in the presence of companions. The research shows that people value their public image and will make choices that reflect how they want to be perceived.
“To avoid embarrassment, we try to manage other’s impressions of ourselves,” said Professor Vicki Morwitz, the Bruce Greenwald Professor of Business. “And we largely tend to manage those impressions in front of people that give us concern on how we are perceived, for example colleagues or new introductions. Our findings suggest that calorie posting will be more effective in contexts where consumers typically order food accompanied by others for whom they have impression management concerns versus when unaccompanied by people who they are comfortable with.”
Professor Morwitz and her co-authors conducted the experiment within one restaurant and collected the food orders of 697 restaurant customers over two weeks. They studied two groups, one with calorie information posted on menus and one without. Once the customers placed their orders, researchers received each table’s full order list from the servers. They recorded each customer’s individual food order and whether they ordered their food while accompanied by others or alone. The researchers also estimated the percentage of food left unconsumed. To gauge the impact of social dining, the researchers classified their perception of the social relationship between the dining companions into five categories:
- Unaccompanied food ordering
- Ordering food with romantic partners
- Ordering food with coworkers
- Ordering food with friends
- Ordering food with family
The experiment found that customers’ total calories were significantly lower when calories were disclosed than when they were not. They also found that calorie posting is more effective in reducing total order calories when consumers dined with more socially distant people (e.g., coworkers) than with closer people (e.g., family).
The results from monitoring each customer’s dining experience indicates that when calorie information is disclosed on menus, the fear of getting negative evaluations from others regarding meal choice motivates people to choose lower-calorie meals to avoid embarrassment. Professor Morwitz and her co-authors suggest that policymakers who want to pass laws that could address obesity need to look for alternative ways to increase consumers’ motivations to choose lower-calorie meals when they order food unaccompanied. They also suggested gamified menu options to let consumers gain more rewards by ordering lower-calorie meals that can be utilized to increase enjoyment. In addition, Professor Morwitz and her co-authors recommend presenting lower-calorie meal items with hashtags can both encourage sharing this information on social media and increase the perceived social nature of the dining experience. Consequently, people might be more motivated to use calorie information in private contexts and when dining with close others as they might be followed by distant others on social media.
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Vicki Morwitz is the Bruce Greenwald Professor of Business and Professor of Marketing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. Professor Morwitz earned...Read more.