The holidays mark that special time of year in which the media bombards women with the latest fad diets and exercise regimens while simultaneously publishing fear-mongering articles about social overeating and holiday feasting. In spite of this age-old tradition, a new study from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab is making headlines for its focus on how men overeat in social situations. Published last month in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, the research focuses on competitive eating and the behaviors and perception associated with the spectacle.
"The emergence of competitive eating raises important questions of what motivates exaggerated levels of consumption," the study's authors write. "Knowing this could illuminate how similar motivations might influence certain people in more common social situations – such as parties, banquets, group dinners, and other intense social situations."
Researchers started off by recruiting college students with similar body types to participate in a chicken-wing eating contest. The winner, researchers promised, would receive "a token medal that is symbolic but has no cash value." Twenty people ended up participating, and were randomly assigned to either participate in a completion with spectators, a competition without spectators, or to eat wings in a noncompetitive control group. After 30 minutes of scarfing down wings, participants were asked to offer feedback.
Unsurprisingly, the volunteers in the competitions ate more wings than those in the control group, and men in both competitions ate more than women. But the presence of spectators appeared to motivate men to eat even more, as the male volunteers in that setting ate the most—an average of 30.5 wings (compared to 23 in the competition-only setting and almost four times more than the control group). Yet the spectators had the opposite effect on women: Without onlookers, women ate an average of 17; with them, they ate only a dozen wings.
In the debriefing, women in both competition conditions said they felt "self-conscious" and "a little bit embarrassed." Men, on the other hand, described the experience as "challenging," "cool," and "exhilarating."
To better understand these results, researchers conducted a follow-up study, asking 93 college students to rate male and female competitive eaters based on their perception of their intelligence, attractiveness, romance, health and strength. They were also asked to suggest how many children a (male or female) competitive eater might have by the age of 50. After analyzing the data, the study's authors found that "women do not appear to be favorably impressed by the feats of overeating." Men, on the other hand, "positively perceived competitive-eating males to be both stronger and having more offspring compared to female competitive eaters."
Researchers conclude that "visibility and attention dramatically increase how much men will eat." Furthermore, they write, "this exhibitionist eating may say less about American eating habits than American ego habits."
Brian Wansink is the director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab and lead author on the study. He says the takeaway from the work is that people, especially men, tend to overeat when in social situations involving a lot of food. "The more competition or the more guys feel people are watching, the more extreme behavior they end up exhibiting," he tells Broadly. "The typical guy, if you give them any attention when they're eating, they'd eat up to four times more."
And it's not just that men are trying to outdo other men. As the results show, men in the study thought eating a whole lot impresses women. We asked Wansink why.
"As guys we're just poorly calibrated to understand what does impress women," he says with a laugh. "So what we use is, well, anything that shows that we are better than another guy." It's probably been that way for thousands of years, he says, but nowadays, that need to one-up another man in front of a woman is often misplaced. "We end up faking importance in a situation where it's actually probably back-firing."
"When there's unlimited amount of food," he continues, "[guys need to] realize that our tendency to want to impress a woman or beat the other guy—it's probably only hurting ourselves."