On the way to meet your friend at a cafe you’re confident about sticking to your resolutions for healthier living. It soon goes awry though – no, not because of your weak willpower, but due to your excess empathy.
Your friend orders first and plumps for the super indulgent Winter Warmer Chocca Mocha with added marshmallows. You follow suit, sensing that if you’d stuck with your original plans for a skinny coffee, you’d have made your friend feel awful. There is now a name for this behaviour: You just engaged in “altruistic indulgence”, the most appealing of excuses for a naughty lapse, described for the first time in a paper in Social Influence.
The researchers led by Youjae Yi at Seoul National University first conducted a field study at a university cafe. They obtained the till receipts for 649 transactions and looked to see whether customers had ordered a low-calorie or high-calorie coffee.
Around half the lone customers ordered a healthy option and half opted for high calorie. Similarly, among the customers who were in a pair and who had ordered first, there was again roughly a 50/50 split in choosing healthy or unhealthy.
In striking contrast, among customers who ordered second, their rate of ordering unhealthy leapt to 80 per cent if their companion had ordered a high-calorie drink (conversely, if the first-ordering companion plumped for a healthy drink, the rate of choosing healthy among those choosing second was only 60 per cent, which is statistically not a significant difference from the average rate of choosing healthy among lone customers or first-order customers).
Put differently, when following a companion who made an unhealthy order, the average rate of choosing unhealthy among customers choosing second increased by 33 per cent; in contrast, when following a companion who made a healthy order, the average rate of choosing healthy among customers choosing second increased by just 8 per cent.
“The modelling behaviour for unhealthy choices was much stronger than that for healthy choices,” the researchers said, adding that this result is consistent with their theory that if our companion orders an unhealthy option, we are often motivated to copy them so as to avoid making them feel bad.
To test this idea further, Yi and his team conducted an online experiment in which they asked 174 women in the US to imagine meeting a friend or a rival at a burger bar and that their companion had ordered first and had chosen the more indulgent, higher-calorie burger of the two on offer. Next, the participants were asked to say which kind of burger meal they would order – the healthier or the more indulgent. The researchers reasoned that if altruistic indulgence is a real phenomenon then participants would be more likely to choose the unhealthy option if they were dining with a friend (based on the logic that you are more likely to feel altruistic concern for a friend than a rival).
Participants asked to imagine dining with a friend were indeed more likely to follow their companion’s lead and opt for the high-calorie burger (51 per cent chose this option, compared with 29 per cent in the rival condition). Moreover, the researchers asked the participants about the motives influencing their choice – concern for their companion’s feelings or a desire to be liked and accepted. In statistical terms, the higher rate of choosing the unhealthy burger in the friend scenario was entirely explained by the participants in this condition (compared with the rival condition) being more motivated by concern for their companion’s feelings, not by any greater desire to be liked or accepted.
“Typically indulgence is regarded as an egoistic choice associated with short-term pleasure for the self and engaged via loss of self-control,” the researchers said. “However, we show that altruistic indulgence is associated with self-sacrifice (forgoing one’s preference and health) … [as a way to protect the feelings of one’s companion].”
Yi and his team said future studies could look into the circumstances that might increase or decrease altruistic indulgence (they predicted that it might be greater when dining with a heavier companion who chooses an unhealthy food or drink option, “… because people should believe that a healthy choice will make a heavier individual feel particularly guilty”) and studies could also investigate how people feel after engaging in altruistic indulgence – will they feel happy that they protected their friend’s feelings or bad that they ate or drank unhealthily?