Suggestion Trumps Restriction: Social Norms Promote Healthier Eating Only When Communicated as a Suggestion
1University of Konstanz, Psychological Assessment & Health Psychology, Germany
2Wageningen University and Research Centre, Communication, Philosophy and Technology: Centre for Integrative Development, The Netherlands
3Utrecht University, Clinical & Health Psychology Department, The Netherlands
4University of New South Wales, National Centre in HIV Social Research, Australia
Background: Social norms influence eating behavior. Research has shown that communicating social norms does not always promote healthy eating, but may sometimes backfire. We investigated if a suggested norm is more successful in curbing unhealthy behavior than a restrictive norm. Methods: Participants (n = 79) completed a creativity task while M&M’s were within reach, consumption of which was forbidden (restrictive norm), discouraged (suggested norm) or allowed (control). Reactance was then assessed, after which a taste test was administered where all participants could eat M&M’s. Findings: Consumption during the creativity task did not differ between the experimental conditions, but reactance after the creativity task was higher in restricted participants. In the free-eating taste test phase, restricted participants consumed more than suggested participants. Indications of mediation via reactance were found. Discussion: There are more and less effective ways of delivering social norms. A restrictive as compared to suggested norm induced psychological reactance and higher unhealthy consumption. It is important to pay attention to the way in which norms are communicated.