Eating unhealthy food served by others allows us to reject responsibility

We already know that eating out is a bad habit. About two-thirds of Americans dine out at least every other day. And while research has shown that restaurant food is generally higher in fat, sugar and salt than homemade food, there’s another factor at play — one tied to our own thoughts, feelings and behavior.

According to the latest research from the USC Marshall School of Business, the less physically involved we are in helping ourselves to food, the more easily we deny responsibility for unhealthy eating or large portions.

In other words, if the restaurant we’re at serves a ridiculously unhealthy serving of cheesecake, well, it’s not our fault. We might as well eat it.

“It’s really about people asking themselves, ‘Should I have this indulgent cheesecake? Probably not,’” said Linda Hagen, assistant professor of marketing at USC Marshall. “But if they are served by someone else, they know it’ll be easy to ‘get away with it’ without feeling guilty.”

Hagen and her colleagues — Aradhna Krishna from the University of Michigan and Brent McFerran, associate professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University — present their findings in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Marketing Research. 

Heaping helpings

Eating more when you’re served by someone else can take place at home as well as a restaurant, according to Hagen.

“The diner who seizes a serving bowl, takes hold of a serving spoon and scoops a helping of food onto her plate incriminates herself more in helping herself to the food than one who is merely handed a plate filled by a server or who takes a pre-packaged portion of a meal from a display shelf,” Hagen and her colleagues wrote.

In other words, if you don’t want to feel badly about that second piece of pumpkin pie, she said, let somebody else cut it up and serve it to you.

Go for the yogurt?

Interestingly, this effect emerges only if people view a food as unhealthy — because people feel more guilty about eating bigger portions of unhealthy food, according to the researchers.

In one study with frozen yogurt, a food viewed by some as healthy and by others as unhealthy, the researchers had people choose what cup size they wanted, ranging from a tiny 2-ounce cup on up to a 5-ounce cup.

Some people were made to serve themselves, as they would at home; that is, they picked their cup size, then scooped their own portion. Others were told to choose their own cup and let a research assistant filled it up.

The people who were served by the research assistant selected significantly larger cups, while the people who served themselves selected significantly smaller portions. “Again, we saw this effect clearly in people who think of frozen yogurt as unhealthy,” Hagen said.

Taking responsibility

“Our findings offer a suggestion for how marketers, policymakers and consumers themselves may reduce the incidence and volume of unhealthy eating,” Hagen said.

For example, hospitality providers such as hotels and restaurants may benefit from enabling consumers to savor consumption experiences more by serving indulgent vice foods to customers and discouraging self-service in any form.

Public entities might combat over-indulgence and obesity by implementing serve-yourself pay-per-weight setups in certain dining environments, like in school cafeterias, where we want to encourage students to make healthy choices.

“Likewise, consumers may leverage these insights to nudge themselves toward healthier decisions,” Hagen and her colleagues wrote. “For example, making it a rule to formally serve oneself even from a so-called single-serve package may help consumers hold themselves accountable for, and in turn curb their portions of, even small snacks that they consume during the day. Using family-style bowls so that everyone can serve their own portion may aid in reducing portions as well.”

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