How a Need to Please Others Can Lead to Overeating

Sociotropy may underlie disordered eating.

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2012 Volume 23, Number 3
©2012 Gürze Books

Sociotropy is a personality trait associated with a high degree of dependence and a preoccupation with pleasing others, avoiding outperformance, and maintaining social harmony. Dr. Julie J. Exline, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University and her colleagues recently explored the possibility that sociotropy might play a role in overeating.

Two studies

In the first study, conducted in a laboratory setting at the university, the researchers hypothesized that a person would eat more if a peer urged them to do so, partly due to sociotropy. The study involved 109 undergraduates (41 men, 60 women) who were enrolled in a general psychology course. All received partial credit for participation. The participants completed a background survey that included demographic material and measurement of sociotropy before participating in the laboratory portion of the study. Half of the survey items assessed sociotropy, while the others assessed autonomy.

When the participants came to the laboratory, they met a female student who was thought to be another study participant. Then the psychologist conducting the experiment reported she had to leave, using the pretense of getting more materials for the study. The peer offered M and Ms to the peer, who was seated near the door. The peer took a handful of candies from the bowl and passed the bowl to the participant, saying, “Would you like some?” Later the psychologist returned with the post-experiment survey, and a full debriefing took place.

On the post-test survey, the number of candies taken by the participant was recorded, based on the total number of candies in the bowl minus those taken by the peer. On average, the peer took 5.1 candies and participants took 4.2 candies. Participants were asked to rate from 0 to 10 (from none to most) the extent to which they tried to take less, the same, or more candy than their peer. Participants were more likely to report trying to eat the same amount as the peer. They were also asked about interpersonal concerns; that is, to what extent were they concerned about how the other person felt toward them, perceived preferences of the peer, eating to make the peer feel comfortable, and about how hungry they had been.

In three instances the results were thrown out for logistical reasons, such as finding that the participant had learned about the study beforehand. Of the remaining 106 participants, 81 had taken candies and eaten all the candy they had taken—later those who took candy very accurately recalled how many candies they took.

The authors found a marginally positive correlation between sociotropy and a desire to eat the same amount of candy as the peer. The degree of sociotropy also marginally predicted greater reports of basing one’s eating decision on an attempt to make the peer comfortable. The results supported the hypothesis that sociotropy would be linked with eating choices, but only in cases where people believed that a peer wanted them to eat. There were no differences by gender.

Study 2: A naturalistic situation with pressure to eat

The second study focused specifically on situations in which another person was eating and wanted the participant to eat as well.

The participants included 149 undergraduates (117 women, 32 men) taking an introductory psychology course. The participants were asked to recall a specific situation where all three of the following criteria were present: (1) they wanted to avoid overeating or to avoid eating a specific food, such as a junk food, high-calorie meal/big portion, sweets or a dessert; (2) they were with another person who clearly wanted to overeat or to eat the very foods the participant was trying to avoid; and (3) they believed the other person wanted them to overeat the type of food/foods that he or she wanted to eat. Participants then briefly described the situation.

The participants rated their perceptions of how the other person would have felt if the participant had eaten less than the peer. The authors outlined six situations that included a threat—negative thoughts toward the study participants, acting hurt or rejecting the participants like they were losers, acting threatened or disapproving toward the participants, and feeling guilty or embarrassed about what was eaten. The study participants also filled in information about giving in to social pressure, interpersonal concern about the other person’s negative feelings or thoughts toward them in this situation, distress, or satisfaction with eating choices. Sociotropy was also measured, as in the first study.

Three participants were dropped from the second study because their situation did not fit the criteria. On average, the eating situations took place within close relationships with same-sex persons, and women participants reported more distress than did the men participants.

Study 2 highlighted several mechanisms that may help explain the link between sociotropy and a sense of pressure to overeat. Specifically, sociotropy was linked to greater perception that the other person would feel threatened if the participant did not eat, along with more intrapersonal concern and distress. Perceptions of having given in to social pressure, in turn, predicted less satisfaction with eating choices.

The authors pointed out that one weakness of the studies was that they focused solely on undergraduates, and in the future a study will be designed to evaluate see if social pressures around eating are also present in other age groups and among non-students as well. Finally, they note that their findings echo a major theme surrounding research on the social costs of outperformance. Namely, how can people be sensitive to the feelings of others, including those whom they outperform, without letting fear of posing a threat hold them back from achieving important personal goals?

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