A major determinant of human eating behavior is social modeling, whereby people use others' eating as a guide for what and how much to eat. We review the experimental studies that have independently manipulated the eating behavior of a social referent (either through a live confederate or remotely) and measured either food choice or intake. Sixty-nine eligible experiments (with over 5800 participants) were identified that were published between 1974 and 2014. Speaking to the robustness of the modeling phenomenon, 64 of these studies have found a statistically significant modeling effect, despite substantial diversity in methodology, food type, social context and participant demographics. In reviewing the key findings from these studies, we conclude that there is limited evidence for a moderating effect of hunger, personality, age, weight or the presence of others (i.e., where the confederate is live vs. remote). There is inconclusive evidence for whether sex, attention, impulsivity and eating goals moderate modeling, and for whether modeling of food choice is as strong as modeling of food intake. Effects with substantial evidence were: modeling is increased when individuals desire to affiliate with the model, or perceive themselves to be similar to the model; modeling is attenuated (but still significant) for healthy-snack foods and meals such as breakfast and lunch, and modeling is at least partially mediated through behavioral mimicry, which occurs without conscious awareness. We discuss evidence suggesting that modeling is motivated by goals of both affiliation and uncertainty-reduction, and outline how these might be theoretically integrated. Finally, we argue for the importance of taking modeling beyond the laboratory and bringing it to bear on the important societal challenges of obesity and disordered eating.
Keywords: Eating; Health behavior; Normative influence; Obesity; Social influence; Social norms.
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