As social beings, we constantly acquire information from our environment. "When other people look at groceries in the supermarket, they become more appealing to us. The gaze of the other person tells us that this product could be potentially important and relevant for us," says Professor Soyoung Q Park, who moved from the Universität zu Lübeck to the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke (DIfE) in December of last year.
During online shopping, consumers often take into account a product’s ratings provided by other consumers. The opinions of others decisively influence individual choice behavior. But what role does subtle social information such as gaze really play? Park pursued this question together with colleagues from the Universität zu Lübeck and the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. In order to find out whether the gaze of other people can influence consumer decisions, they recorded eye movements of study participants with an eyetracker. First, participants viewed different food items and were asked how much money they are willing to pay for each item. By doing so, the researchers were able to assess the personal value of each product for the participants.
More money for food in focus
Following this evaluation, the food items were presented again repeatedly, but this time along with faces that either looked at the product or ignored them. Afterwards, participants were asked once more how much they were willing to pay for each product. "The result of the experiment is impressive: when the food was shown together with faces that looked at the product, the subjects were willing to spend more money on it. At the same time, they wanted to spend less money on a product that was ignored," says first author Dr. Madipakkam, who is pleased with the observations.
Leading by example
The study shows that our food choice is influenced not only by its visual appearance or taste, but also by the people who surround us. This finding may be important in exploring the function of role models in healthy eating behavior: parental behavior respective to – healthy or unhealthy – food choice might powerfully change the food’s value in the eyes of their children. "Our findings provide clear indications of how consumer decisions are created and controlled. Social information, such as other people’s gazes, can be effectively used in the future to improve eating habits towards a healthy diet," according to Prof. Park.
Madipakkam AR, Bellucci G, Rothkirch M, Park SQ. The influence of gaze direction on food preferences. Scientific Reports (2019) 9:5604