People who order food when they are in groups are more likely to order similar meal items, even if they wouldn’t normally have chosen a certain food by themselves.
According to researchers, this is likely the result of the basic human instinct to be “part of the group,” but it can also be a way for indecisive individuals to avoid looking at everything on the menu.
“We want to be different from our friends a little bit, but not too different,” said study researcher Brenna Ellison to Live Science. “Our results suggest that a lot of the choices we make seem to be dependent on what the people we’re eating with are doing,” Ellison said. “(So) should we nudge people toward healthier food, or healthier friends?”
For the study, experts evaluated approximately 1500 receipts from restaurant goers over a 19-week period. Diners were given menus with or without calorie information, and the choice of 51 menu items, which fit into eight food categories: soups/salads, burgers/sandwiches, combo meals, pasta, vegetarian dishes, choice steaks, prime steaks, and the daily specials.
What the experts found was diners at the same tables typically ordered foods from the same categories, and the more people who ordered a certain item, the more likely those yet to order would consider that item as well. What’s more, the person who ordered first usually set the tone for what the rest of the group would choose.
Pricing results were the same. People were more likely to spend more on their meal if others in the group also ordered expensive dishes–regardless of whether or not the bill was split or payed for by one in the group.
The group behavior suggests that friends can inadvertently control what one another eats to a certain point, and this could be used to help steer people toward a healthier diet when eating out. But for people who don’t want to be influenced by those around them and wish to get the meal they would want the most, Ellison suggests looking at online menus before dinner and having a choice in mind before you enter the restaurant.