The waiter’s appearance may determine whether you choose healthy or unhealthy food – without you even being aware of it.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Psychology and Marketing

Imagine that you are about to order food at a pleasant little restaurant.

A waitress brings you the menu. Her right arm is tattooed, her skin is sallow, there are dark rings under her eyes, and her hair is piled high as if she comes straight from a party. This waitress radiates a debauched, unhealthy lifestyle.

You study the menu, which includes salads and other healthy dishes, but also hamburgers, pizza and other food that is not all that good for you. What will you choose, healthy or unhealthy? Does it matter what the waiter looks like?

This is what Anders Gustafsson, adjunct professor at BI Norwegian Business School and professor at Karlstad University, wanted to find out with his researcher colleagues.

The waitress determines what you eat

Gustafsson and his team of researchers recruited 100 female students to take part in an experiment where they investigated how the appearance of the waitress affected the choice between healthy and unhealthy food.

Previous studies seem to indicate that women are more influenced by a waiter's looks than men.

A female student took on the three waitressing roles:

  1. As her normal self, fit and healthy, 171 cm tall, weighing 56 kg
  2. The same height, but with extra padding so that she looked slightly overweight, around 85 kg
  3. With her normal weight, but made up with a tattoo, sallow skin, high-piled hair and a generally unhealthy lifestyle.

Each of the restaurant guests who participated in the experiment was shown a video with one of the three waitresses. Afterwards they were asked to choose a dish from the same menu, which consisted of three healthy and three unhealthy dishes.

The participants were placed in front of equipment that measured their eye movements, so that one could see which part of the menu they paid most attention to. They then had to choose a dish from the menu.

The results of the study have been published in the scientific periodical Psychology and Marketing.

People choose healthy if the waitress is healthy or overweight

The restaurant guests who met the fit and healthy waitress, spent more time studying the healthy dishes on the menu, and ended up choosing something healthy.

This was also the case for those who were served by the slightly overweight waitress. And with her, the people chose more quickly, the study shows.

The guests who met the waitress that radiated a debauched, unhealthy lifestyle (in other ways than by being overweight), stayed clear of the healthy dishes and picked a proper burger, pizza or another of the unhealthy dishes.

Social explanation

"We don't make a conscious assessment of what to choose from the menu. The choice is made as an automatic response," explains professor Gustafsson. "Our brain has a number of shortcuts that direct our choices without us being aware of it.

When we make decisions on what to eat, we will often compare ourselves with others and make sure we don't break with the norm.

When we meet the healthy and overweight waitress, we may think she is genuinely keen on us choosing healthy food. We unconsciously choose to follow this norm, in line with the theory of social evidence or control.

When meeting the unhealthy waitress, we might choose whatever we feel like eating. The waitress doesn't look like she cares what we choose, anyway. She is not someone you want to identify with," the market researcher explains.

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Send your comments and questions regarding this article by E-mail to forskning@bi.no.

Text: Audun Farbrot, Head of Science Communication at BI Norwegian Business School.

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