Social norms shift behavioral and neural responses to foods

Erik C. Nook, Jamil Zaki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


Obesity contributes to 2.8 million deaths annually, making interventions to promote healthy eating critical. Although preliminary research suggests that social norms influence eating behavior, the underlying psychological and neural mechanisms of such conformity remain unexplored. We used fMRI to investigate whether group norms shift individuals’ preferences for foods at both behavioral and neural levels. Hungry participants rated how much they wanted to eat a series of healthy and unhealthy foods and, after each trial, saw ratings that ostensibly represented their peers’ preferences. This feedback was manipulated such that peers appeared to prefer each food more than, less than, or as much as participants themselves. After a delay, participants rerated each food. Participants’ second ratings shifted to resemble group norms. Initial consensus, as compared to disagreement, with peers produced activity in the nucleus accum-bens, a region associated with reward prediction errors. Furthermore, the strength of this activity predicted the extent to which participants’ ratings conformed to peer ratings, suggesting that the value associated with consensus drives social influence. Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), a region associated with value computation, initially responded more strongly to unhealthy, as compared to healthy, foods. However, this effect was “overwritten” by group norms. After individuals learned their peers’ preferences, vMPFC responses tracked the popularity, but not the healthful-ness, of foods. Furthermore, changes in vMPFC activity tracked social influence over behavioral ratings. These data provide evidence that group norms can shift food preferences, supporting the use of norms-based interventions to promote healthy eating.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1412-1426
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of cognitive neuroscience
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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