Doughnuts…anyone? a Look at Conformity Patterns and Food Related Behaviors Among College Students
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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HICKS, A. L. (2006). Doughnuts…anyone? a Look at Conformity Patterns and Food Related Behaviors Among College Students. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 9. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Doughnuts…anyone? a Look at Conformity Patterns and Food Related Behaviors Among College Students

Sponsored by: PATRICIA MARSH (
Conformity is a powerful factor influencing the decisions that people make. It was hypothesized that female college students will be less likely to eat a donut if other females in the classroom are declining a donut. The present study examined conformity patterns among college students when doughnuts were presented in a classroom setting. One-hundred twelve students enrolled in introductory level psychology courses completed a pre survey about eating preferences, leadership behavior, social influences, and basic demographic information. A post survey was given to determine if the students ate a donut in class and asked for reasons one was eaten or refused. Chi-Square tests showed no significant difference between class times or participants sex to whether a donut was eaten the first time they were presented to the class. Regression analysis showed no significant predictors in sex, handedness, or conformity scales on eating a donut in the class. A one-way ANOVA showed no significant difference measuring conformity patterns between the dependent variables.

On a daily basis, people are faced with many choices and alternatives regarding their lives and personal well being. Out of these choices, people have to make decisions to live life according to their decisions. These life choices and decision options range from being extremely important and life changing, to miniscule leaving only a small mark in a person’s history. One example of a small decision made daily whether or not they will be eating food and the settings where they feel comfortable to indulge. The current study examines how decisions are made about a specific food, and what influences the process. Eating food is a normal part of everyday life. Although eating food is a natural occurrence, it may make certain individuals uncomfortable, such as eating in a group setting. There are many factors that influence whether or not an individual decides to eat. Guarino, Fridrich and Sitton (1994) state eating habits can be manipulated by group pressure. The presence of other people or suggestions made by them may effect or influence a person close by to either consume a food item or refuse it. Humans are social animals who are greatly influenced by their peers even when they are not consciously aware of it. People are impacted by others around them and may make decisions based on what they see or hear. For example, Turner (1991) describes that the social impact of other person’s on an individual creates a great variety of changes in beliefs, cognitions, feelings, behavior, motives, and values. The social impact regarding a particular topic or subject may help reinforce an individual’s original opinions on the topic or cause them to deviate and join the group adopting their ideas. Humans may feel pressured by those individuals around them and engage in similar activities of their peers. This social pressure or influence is the tendency to conform. Aronson (1999) defines conformity as a change in a person’s behavior or opinions as a result of real or imagined pressure from a person or group of people. There are many reasons people will conform to others whether it be embarrassment, fear of rejection, wanting to be seen in favorable light, or not wanting to be singled out. The ultimate reward through conformity is acceptance. Goldsmith, Clark and Lafferty (2005) state that conformity is influenced by a situation and that the tendency to conform is a personality trait found more strongly in some individuals. Some people are naturally strong willed and not afraid to be the odd one out where as others simply want to blend in and will do the same as the majority. Compliance is similar to conformity because they both deal with making decisions based on other people’s actions or choices. Stern (1999) explains that compliance is when an individual agrees with the majority but does not alter their private beliefs. This is commonly practiced among humans so we are able to identify with one another and be viewed favorably and accepted. It is difficult for an individual to deviate from the majority and may bring a great deal of unwanted stress after being singled out. Aronson (1999) points out that though individuals may conform to judgments of the majority, this does not necessarily mean they have altered their personal beliefs. He states the pressure behind conformity has a minimal effect. Aronson goes on to discuss that as the amount of privacy an individual has, the less likely they are to conform to others. When in private, humans are not trying to please others, therefore they can make decisions based on their own interests rather than the group’s interests. Turner (1991) states “if compliance depends on surveillance by a group or audience, one way to gain rewards or desired ends is not so much to conform privately, but to look publicly as if one is enacting appropriate and desirable attributes (p 124).” Turner also explains that people conform to expectations that put them in a desirable light. It seems to be very important to people to be liked and able to identify with others. Group pressure can be a very strong factor manipulating a person’s decision making process. People do not want to appear to be the odd one out so they may publicly agree and assimilate the ideas and beliefs held within the group in order to identify with its members. Stern (1999) describes crowd behavior as a relatively sizeable collection of people in direct interaction with one another in a public place. A college classroom is one place where crowd behavior may be exhibited. Crowd behavior is related to conformity and compliance because people may be tempted to make decisions and choices based on those that other individuals in the crowd are making. Group pressure may arise when individuals are in a crowd of people and conformity patterns may be influenced. Aronson (1999) discusses that individuals with low self esteem are more likely to yield to group pressure than those with high self esteem. People are more likely to conform to individuals that they view as being similar to them. They are also more likely to conform to an individual who has authority or expertise in the given situation. Cialdini and Goldstein (2004) report that individuals often engage in more conscious attempts to gain the social approval of others, to build rewarding relationships with them which will in return enhance their self esteem. There seems to be a difference in conformity patterns between the two sexes. Aronson (1999) mentions that women are more likely than men to conform, especially when research is led by a male experimenter. Eagly and Chrvala (1986) conclude that one factor responsible in group pressure experiments is the surveillance that group members have over each others opinions meaning sex may function as a status cue within groups. Pliner and Chaiken (1990) discuss that in our culture, women show a greater concern with food, eating, and body weight than men. Mori, Pliner, and Chaiken (1987) note that women weigh themselves and diet more frequently than men do. Pliner and Chaiken (1990) state that eating lightly and being slim are appropriate sex-roles for women in our society. It has been found through empirical tests that women will eat less in the presence of men. Interestingly enough, the same is true for men. Eagly and Chrvala (1986) explain that another possible explanation of higher conformity rates among females may be based on traditional gender role expectation norms where a woman is expected to be selflessly committed to preserving social harmony and enhancing positive feelings among group members. This means women’s conformity can be viewed as an expression of social support. One study that was done on women regarding food and conformity patterns was done by Guarino, Fridrich, and Sitton (1994) where they conclude that women would be more likely to indulge themselves in a dessert when the preceding member of their party had done so. The study they conducted chose desserts as the item stimulus that would affect the dependent variable, conformity. They state that our society has the largest per capita consumer of sugar in the world. Another study done about women, conformity, and food consumption was by Johnston (2002). She wrote about behavioral mimicry and that a person merely perceiving another person engage in a particular behavior makes one more likely to engage in that same behavior as reported by Chartrand and Bargh (1999). In their study, participants mimicked gestures they saw demonstrated by confederates such as shaking their foot. Johnston (2002) did her study on food consumption and the social influence on eating behavior. In previous experiments, women of all shapes and sizes have been shown to mimic a confederate’s consumption of food. Social influence holds a great deal of power over eating behavior. Johnston (2002) specific experimental task used was an ice cream tasting test alongside an experimental confederate of the same sex. The confederates consisted of obese and normal weight women and individuals with a facial birth mark or those who didn’t have a birth mark consuming either a small or large amount of ice cream. Through surveys, it was determined that having a visual stigma, obesity or birth mark, had equally negative perceptions when compared to those with no stigmas. In her results, she found participants ate more ice cream when paired with a non-obese confederate. When the confederate was obese, there was no effect on greater consumption of ice cream. In the case of the birth mark, participants mimicked the high consumption whether or not the confederate had a birth mark. The obesity stigma was the only time when high consumption was not mimicked. The current study is concerned with conformity patterns among female college students enrolled in an introductory level psychology course when it comes to eating in a coed group setting. Previous research suggests gender differences may affect conformity rates with females being more likely to conform. It was hypothesized that female college students will engage in the behavior they observe other females engaging in. it was also hypothesized that the shop the donuts were purchased from will have an effect on the decisions of the students within the class, both male and female. A third hypothesis is that left handed individuals will be more likely to conform than the right handed students.

A total of 112 college students enrolled in introductory level psychology classes at Missouri Western State University were participants in this study. Of those who participated, 44 were male and 68 were female. The students who served as subjects were members of three different classrooms with the same instructor. Two of the classrooms served as experimental groups and the third served as the control. The control group had no contact with the experimenter. The two experimental groups were presented with a presentation from the experimenter and then asked to come to a psychology club meeting with the donuts serving as an incentive. In the first experimental group, the experimenter came into the classroom with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the benefits associated with a psychology degree and what was required of the students to receive the degree. The experimenter brought four boxes of 50 donuts into the classroom and had them sitting on a table in the middle of the classroom. The experimenter expressed to the class that the donuts were offered with the presentation as compliments of the psychology department and everyone was free to come up and get one. The class had three attractive female confederates who were enrolled in the course working for the experimenter. There were two Caucasian females and one African American female. The confederates were asked to make negative comments about the donuts loud enough for those in close proximity to hear them making these comments. The comments were not recited verbatim. The confederates were told to make sure and include four key points. The points were as follows: (1) the donuts were generic and not from a chain such as Dunkin Donuts, (2) donuts are fattening and greasy, (3) it is embarrassing to eat in front of boys, (4) even if the confederate wanted one, there wasn’t enough for all the students in the class to have one. The experimenter came in a second time providing the same amount of donuts as the previous meeting. The experimenter gave a speech on why the students should attend a psychology club meeting the following day. This time, the three female confederates made no negative comments about the donuts but instead ate donut. This was contradictory to the comments they had previously made. The second experimental group had the same amount of donuts brought into their classroom and were exposed to the same presentations given by the experimenter. This group also had three attractive female confederates in it. There were two Caucasian females and one African American female. The confederates made no comments about donuts the first time the experimenter came into the classroom. These females ate a donut. The second time the experimenter came into the classroom, the confederates made negative comments about the donuts and did not eat one. The comments they were asked to give were the same comments that the first experimental group were asked to use. The third group in the study was the control condition. The experimenter had no contact with this group. The professor brought the donuts to class and told the students they were able to have one if they chose to. She made no other comments about the donuts. She brought 17 donuts into the classroom. Each of experimental groups had 50 donuts on the table. The control group were presented with 17 donuts. This made into so there were enough donuts for sixty-six percent of the students to have one from each of the three groups.

A one-way ANOVA showed no significant difference measuring conformity patterns on whether a donut was eaten and if the decision to eat one or pass was influenced by an individual around the person. Chi-square analysis showed no significant difference between the class times, sex, or eating a donut the first time they were presented in the classroom. Regression analysis showed no significant predictors through a participant’s sex, handedness, or answers on the conformity scales included in the pre-survey. Regression did find that intended major was a significant predictor of a donut being eaten the first time they were presented in the classroom, R² (1,100) = .04, P< .05. It was also shown that students basing their decisions to eat a donut on if other students ate donuts was a significant predictor, R² (1, 109) = .19 p< .05. There was a positive correlation between whether a donut was eaten and if the decision to eat a donut was based upon others around the person (r = .43, p< .001). More female students were dieting than male students (r= .217, p < .05) and less comfortable with their weight (r= .35, p < .001). There was no significant difference with the interaction between participants’ sex and their handedness on conformity. However the results did approach statistical significance (p= .068) suggesting that left handed men were the least likely to conform and left handed women were the most likely to conform.

This study was faced with a critical problem that altered the results. The post survey was administered one week following the date it was intended to be passed out to the students. This wiped out the results of the treatment effect due to students not answering whether or not they ate a donut the second time they were offered in the classroom. The students answered that donuts were not offered in class. The results of the study were drawn from the conformity scales included on the pre-survey and the students answer on the post survey regarding if they ate a donut the first time they were offered in the classroom. This limited the results of the study. This study could be replicated in the future with circumstances being more closely monitored and ensuring the surveys and presentations are done on the proper days. This study would benefit fro having an observer in the classroom noting how many students ate a donut and the sort of comments they heard being made. This would allow the experimenter to compare the observer’s findings to the student’s answers on the surveys. Future research could be done on the relationship of handedness and gender. It was interesting to see that the interaction of an individual’s handedness and sex on their level of conformity was approaching significance. This research was limited due to the small sample size. This study could be done with more participants to see if the results become statistically significant. Further research could be done with other studies in relation to conformity patterns among the different sexes and their handedness.

Aronson, E. (1999). The social animal. New York, New York: Worth Publishers.Basow, S., & Kobrynowicz, D. (1993). What is she eating? The effects of meal size on impressions of a female eater. Sex Roles, 28(5-6), 335-344.Cialdini, R. B., & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social influence: Compliance and conformity. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 591-621.Connor-Greene, P. A., Striegel-Moore, R. H., & Cronan, S. (1994). Perceived social climate and weight preoccupation in college women. Eating Disorders, 2, 126-134. Eagly, A. H., & Chrvala, C. (1986). Sex differences in conformity: Status and gender role interpretations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 203-220.Goldsmith, R. E., Clark, R. A., & Lafferty, B. A. (2005). Tendency to conform: A new measure and its relationship to psychological reactance. Psychological Reports, 96, 591-594.Guarino, M., Fridrich, P., & Sitton, S. (1994). Male and female conformity and eating behavior. Psychological Reports, 75 (Spec Issue), 603-609.Johnston, L. (2002). Behavioral mimicry and stigmatization. Social Cognition, 20, 18-35.Mori, D., Pliner, P., & Chaiken, S. (1987). “Eating lightly” and the self presentation of femininity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 693-702.Pliner, P., & Chaiken, S. (1990). Eating, social motives, and self presentation in men and women. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 26, 240-254.Stern, K. (1999). Social Influences. New York, New York: Routledge.Turner, J. C. Social Influence. Bristol, Pennsylvania: Open University Press.


Submitted 5/9/2006 7:49:14 PM
Last Edited 5/9/2006 7:55:05 PM
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