Study: How Supersizing Makes Us Feel More Important

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There are doubtless many reasons why Americans have fallen heads over stomachs for so-called “supersize” food portions: we’re hungrier, we’re bargain-hunting, we own a lot of McDonald’s and other QSR shares. Or maybe we all just have unresolved anger toward Morgan Spurlock. But recent research suggests another cause, which could have broad implications for both marketers trying to sell ginormous portions and do-gooders hoping to wean the United States of Obesity off them: Many people may subconsciously buy giant packages and servings because doing so makes them feel more important.

That’s the conclusion of a study conducted by David Dubois, Derek Rucker and Adam Galinsky, featured in the most recent issue of the always-interesting Journal of Consumer Research. In a comprehensive assault on their subject, the three researchers (all with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) used multiple lab and field experiments (involving a variety of drinks and snacks) to demonstrate conclusively that:

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> People view others as having higher status when observing them choose the largest item among a set.

> People who feel less powerful are more likely to choose larger items than people who feel more powerful.

This preference for larger items remains the same even when price is not a consideration.

> The preference for larger items is enhanced when we know people are watching us choose or consume.

> People who feel especially needful of a status bump prefer larger sizes when big is considered better.

The experiments themselves are worth diving into, if only to see the care taken by the researchers to ensure that they accounted for every reasonable doubt in their hypothesis. That is, they wanted to be certain that people don’t prefer supersize options simply because they’re perceiving those purchases as better deals. So one of their experiments involved people choosing between larger and smaller free samples (was no obvious limit on number). Likewise, they wanted to understand whether hunger was a major factor in people going larger when choosing food or drink options, so one experiment involved the same amount of food (obvious to study participants) in different size containers.

In the end, no matter how they tested potential weaknesses in their theories the trio could not help but find significant results suggesting that one of the primary reasons many people are partial to supersize options is because we subconsciously feel better about ourselves when buying or consuming such options and/or we think such purchases elevate our status in the eyes of others.

In other words, we super size because it makes us feel superior—or at least a little better than we felt before.

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Some folks, of course, will note that while the obesity problem in this country cut across all socio-economic, ethnic and income levels, it’s especially prevalent among those in the bottom half of the income tables—and even more prevalent among women and non-college graduates in those ranks. It’s not that far of a stretch to think that folks who are less educated, paid less on average or are otherwise resource-challenged might be more vulnerable to purchase and consumption decisions based on a non-conscious idea that bigger/larger/more equals better/powerful/more important.

Then again, such armchair epdemiology is beside the point. As the researchers note, if a meaningful portion of buying decisions involve status-to-size assessments, there’s room for both marketers and policy makers to change the equation. That is, to the extent that people are drawn to associating larger options with higher status, it’s only because  our society generally (though not always) equate larger/bigger/more with successful/accomplished/powerful.

In one of their half dozen experiments, the researchers manipulated study participants by reading one of two news articles: one referred to a study by Harvard and Northwestern  researchers showing that “63% of the 1,000 most influential Americans are fit,” while the other referred to a study showing that “63% of the 1,000 most influential Americans are overweight.”  The italics are ours and both studies were made up, but the effect on those who heard about one or the other were very real. At the end of the experiment, all participants were allowed to pick a candy treat (Toblerone) from one of five different-sized options. And, wouldn’t you know it, those who were read the results of a study equating largeness to influence were more likely to supersize, while those who were read the results of a study equating smallness to influence were more likely to downsize. Most notably, the effect was significantly more evident in people who were primed to feel less powerful than those primed to feel more powerful.

So if policy-makers and others focused on national wellness—not just the medical establishment, by the way, but also the insurance industry and many others (fatter people = wider seats = fewer passengers on planes)—want to help stem the obesity epidemic, they need to make smaller/less/fewer the new equation for successful/accomplished/powerful. That may sound laughable at the moment, but mandatory seat belts once did too, as did the thought of turning litter into a consensus evil.

Such broad changes in outlook are possible when there’s a consensus. Marketers, remember, didn’t start supersizing because they had too much beef or corn syrup or cheese powder in their factories they wanted to get rid of. They decided to go big that because focus groups told them such products would sell big. Businesses are only in it for the profit, and there are countless high-end restaurants in this world that prove daily how much you can ask for a small piece of fish or center cut of steak. It’s all about framing and positioning. In fact, Dubois, Rucker and Galinsky note in the conclusion to their article that Daimler, when it launched its Smart car in 1998, managed to change (in Europe, at least) what seemed like an unshakable norm of equating large cars with greater status, paving the way for other brands like the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500.

Humans, no matter what they’re socio-economic or education levels, will always seek to feel better about themselves and look more important to others. That won’t ever change. But the standards by which we measure what equals power, influence and higher status can and do change. For some of us, it’s a matter of life and death that they change soon.

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