When it comes to healthy eating, we’re told, time and again, that our mental fortitude and our self-control will help us weather the storm of addictive candies and unhealthy snacks surrounding us in the office.
But a new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that those healthy intentions don’t matter. What does: the social cues we face in the moment of snacking. In other words, our temptation to snack increases when we’re around other people snacking, and we usually give in. It’s enough to overpower our healthy eating goals every single day.
This makes sense: scientific studies previously showed that obsesity spreads among friends like a virus. “When one person gains weight, close friends tend to gain weight too,” the New York Times wrote back in 2007. One suspected cause then was that friends share meals; we do the same with coworkers.
We eat more when we see others eating
To prove this, the researchers from the University of Tasmania and the University of Bremen recruited 61 participants to report their snacking behavior on a device. For two weeks, the participants would log whenever they ate a snack or a meal, and what environmental factors were around them while they were eating. Researchers found that the odds of participants eating a snack increased when they saw other people eating.
In fact, people snacked around other snackers even when they didn’t want to. They snacked regardless of what healthy intentions they had prior to the experiment.
One other interesting finding: Seeing food or being near it does not increase the chance we will eat it. Even when the study participants were close to where people were serving food, they didn’t necessarily feel compelled to eat. The bigger factor was seeing other people eat.
The researchers don’t want you think that their study means that your self-control plays no determining factor in your eating choices. They cited previous studies that found that teaching participants about moderation would allow participants to overcome those momentary impulses to snack. But what this study proves is that factors outside of our control —like that co-worker eating chips right in front of you!— are just as important, if not more, as factors we can control.