In social situations, men may eat more, just to make themselves look good. Everyone can be susceptible to this effect, says new research from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, but men are particularly prone to showing off.
“Even if men aren’t thinking about it, eating more than a friend tends to be understood as a demonstration of virility and strength,” says co-author Kevin Kniffin, of Cornell University.
The study consisted of two parts. The first was an eating competition, in which participants in different groups were either cheered-on by an audience, or ate without a crowd. Men ate four times as many chicken wings when cheered on, whereas women actually ate less when there was an audience. To remove other incentives, the prize for overeating was a cheap plastic medal.
Previous studies have shown that men are more likely to overeat if they are put in situations that normalize excessive consumption. For instance, they may eat and drink more if their waiter is fat. Another study has shown that men at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet manage to stuff down twice as much doughy pizza when there are females present than they do in an all-male situation.
Women, on the other hand, eat less in the presence of a man. When interviewed after the first study, women used terms like “self-conscious,” and “a little bit embarrassed,” whereas men preferred phrases like “challenging,” “cool,” “exhilarating,” and “really a rush.”
The second part of the study, led by Cornell Food and Brand Lab director Brian Wansink, looked at the perceptions toward male competitive eaters, to try to tease out the reasons behind eating to show off. If, say the authors, male competitive eaters are perceived and stronger, more attractive, or more reproductively fit, then this could explain the need to eat more in public. In a randomized study, participants were asked to rate male and female eaters on these traits.
Interestingly, women weren’t that impressed by male overeating, but men were. Male participants rated female overeaters as less attractive, and less romantic, whereas, say the authors, “women do not appear to be favorably impressed by the feats of overeating.”
The authors find their research inconclusive when it comes to motivation. It may be that men overeat when in competition not because of the eating part, but because they and the spectators confuse the spectacle with athleticism, and act accordingly. And it may be that women really do find show-off eating attractive, but don’t display it consciously in their answers.
Either way, men really do eat more on occasions which encourage doing so. That’s something to remember this holiday season. Don’t overeat just because you are encouraged to do so, or because everyone else is doing it. That might not be easy for us show-off men, but being aware of the problem is a start.