Using social norms to encourage healthier eating

Suzanne Higgs, Jinyu Liu, Emily Collins, Jason Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


What and how much people choose to eat is influenced by social context. People tend to use the eating habits of others as a guide to appropriate consumption. This suggests that one way of encouraging healthier eating would be to provide information about the healthy eating choices of others. Research conducted as part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project investigated the effect of providing information about how others eat on the purchase and consumption of vegetables in both laboratory and in field settings (restaurants). In a laboratory-based study, we found that that while overall vegetable intake was not increased, exposure to a novel ‘liking norm’ message increased the selection and intake of broccoli from a buffet by participants who were low habitual consumers of vegetables. We also found that the liking norm increased broccoli intake even when there was a delay between exposure to the message and selection at the buffet, suggesting that the effects of social message exposure may persist beyond initial exposure. In two online studies and a laboratory study, we found that the effect of exposure to a descriptive social norm message on eating intentions and intake was moderated by the participants’ motivation to identify with the norm referent group. In three intervention studies, exposure to social norm messaging was associated with increased purchases of meals with vegetables in restaurant settings. Taken together, these results suggest that it is feasible to use social norm messages in restaurant settings and they provide information that could be used to implement randomised controlled trials.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-52
Number of pages10
JournalNutrition Bulletin
Issue number1
Early online date20 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019

Bibliographical note

© 2019 The Authors. Nutrition Bulletin published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Nutrition Foundation

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Funding: Our research on social norms and eating described in this paper was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC–ES/K002678/1)


  • food choice
  • food intake
  • healthy eating
  • interventions
  • social norms
  • vegetables


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