Men eat to excess when they need to impress

Media note: A short video explaining the research, as well as an informational graphic and additional details about this research can be found at, http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/OP/eating_to_impress

ITHACA, N.Y. – Men have a reputation of doing just about anything to show off in front of women, no matter how seemingly absurd. That effort to impress apparently extends to their eating habits: A new Cornell study shows that men eat significantly more food when in the company of women – and such excess is motivated by a hardwired male urge to demonstrate prowess to the opposite sex, researchers suggest.

For the study, Cornell researchers from the Food and Brand Lab observed adults lunching at an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet. They found men who dined with at least one woman ate 93 percent more pizza compared with those who ate exclusively with other men. That tendency to overeat extended to healthier options as well: Men ate 86 percent more salad in the company of women.

An explanation of the findings can be traced to an evolved tendency to show off to the opposite sex, according to Kevin Kniffin, visiting assistant professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and lead author of the study, which as published Nov. 10 in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.

“The findings suggest that men tend to overeat to show off,” Kniffin said. “Instead of a feat of strength, it’s a feat of eating.”

By overconsuming food, men unconsciously may be signaling their biological fitness, a paradoxical tactic in this case given that “overeating consistently is going to produce a body shape research shows tends to be viewed as unattractive,” Kniffin explained.

Kniffin said the findings fit with other examples of self-handicap behavior, where in this case men are showing off their fitness through excessive eating. Engaging in risky or unhealthy behavior, the thinking goes, demonstrates an extraordinary ability to tolerate challenges, even self-inflicted ones.

Previous studies have looked into the evolutionary mechanisms that influence female eating patterns, but disordered eating among men – such as the overeating found at competitive eating contests typically dominated by male competitors – has not been closely scrutinized.

While the Cornell study suggests that men are the ones who overeat, it’s the women who report a sense that they are the ones who overdid it. Specifically, women eating with men reported feeling rushed during the meal and perceived that they overate despite researchers finding no evidence that they did so.

Regardless of the gender of the person, Kniffin said a lesson to take away from the study is the same: “The findings are clear that people should calm down when eating with members of the opposite sex. Men seem to be eating more, and women feel like they overate.”

Media Contact:
Melissa Osgood
office: 607-255-2059
cell: 607-882-3773
mmo59@cornell.edu

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews. For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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