Our self-images are bound with the products we buy, the money we possess and, I now gather, the portions of food we eat.
“Super Size Me: Product Size as a Signal of Status” is fascinating Northwestern University research that links obesity with consumers’ status, especially a person’s low rank in the social hierarchy. Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign is even tougher than she imagines.
In sum, the study argues that those who feel relatively powerless will eat bigger food portions when given the choice, since they associate portion size with status. It could be a choice among three sizes of coffee, bagels, pizza, smoothies or fancy hors d’oeuvres. And it won’t matter if the price is the same for the alternatives.
Conversely, those who feel powerful and wealthy often associate status with the slim, be it physiques or gadgets they use. Rahm Emanuel is thus akin to Tom Wolfe’s “social X-rays,” or socialites believing they can’t be too thin or too rich. Stick the disciplined Missile in a chocolate factory, and he’ll probably ask for Perrier.
We’ve always known that people seek luxury products and pay a price beyond their actual utility, linking the high cost to the product’s scarcity. And we’ve also associated obesity with poverty, seeing low-income citizens as victims of poor nutritional education and limited access to good food.
What’s different in the new study is discerning how those with a sense of powerlessness link larger food portions to increased status. Even when the researchers took money out of the equation, people would opt for the bigger food product. That was especially so when an experiment put them into a temporary state of powerlessness, like having to take orders from a boss.
The study’s genesis was serendipitous, said Derek Rucker, associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management. David Dubois, then a French doctoral student at Kellogg, saw three differently sized options for smoothies from a vendor at the student union cafeteria.
The biggest one was labeled “Power.” That got him and Mr. Rucker thinking about how pedestrian products — ones easy to find — can signal status.
Mr. Rucker has been intrigued by luxury products. Now he is taking product size down a different path and suggesting that the penchant to “super-size” can reflect a link between size and status, not just a view of what’s the better value.
In one study, 183 students were assigned to make snap judgments about others based on how the others responded to three sizes of coffee, pizza and smoothies. When those others picked the largest size, they were generally viewed as having more social status.
Subsequent experiments placed 142 participants from a national online pool into categories that included having low or high power. Those in the low-power group were asked to recall and describe an incident in which somebody had power over them. They tended to opt for the larger option.
In another experiment, in a Chicago high-rise, bagels were cut into different sizes and offered free in three different lobby areas. One table had a sign, “We all feel powerful in the morning, treat yourself to free bagels.” The others made a similar offer: “We feel powerless in the morning” or, simply, “It’s morning.”
“Even when presented with free small and large food samples, powerless individuals took and consumed more large food samples but not more small food samples” than the other groups, concludes a study just published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
In France, Mr. Dubois tested whether 104 people would pick smaller hors d’oeuvres if told that size was linked to higher status. Those in one room were informed that bigger hors d’oeuvres were staples of prestigious events, while those in the other were told that they were generally served at common events.
When those people who felt they lacked status equated larger hors d’oeuvres with greater status, they ate more of them than did those who saw themselves as powerful. When told that the smaller snacks had greater status, the lower-status group went for those.
The latter tendency suggests that maybe society can alter the size-to-status relationship and cut down on obesity. But it’s a challenge.
Driving west on the Kennedy Expressway on Wednesday, I couldn’t avoid a billboard displaying a gigantic glass of beer. “Man Up for More Taste,” it implored, followed by an Illinois Lottery billboard for the MEGA Millions game.
Big beers, big wealth, big portions. We’re prisoners of consumption.