When making food choices when we’re with friends, we tend to want to match characteristics that others can measure or rank, such as size or price, but feel free to go our own way on things like flavor or shape, a new study suggests.

Researchers say we do this to avoid awkwardness.

It’s a familiar scenario: You go out to eat with a friend, and he or she orders a Caesar salad. Your friend’s choice inspires you to order a salad, too—only you decide to mix things up a little and choose a chef salad instead. This scenario sits at the center of a persistent marketing puzzle: Why are we more likely to copy our friends in certain domains but not in others?

Food choices and our friends

Through a series of 11 experiments, Kelly Haws, a professor of marketing at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, and her coauthors explored a number of nuances that govern these decisions.

While they focused on food choices, they also looked at a charitable giving scenario to test whether their findings could extend to other decision-making areas.

Broadly speaking, we tend to match the choices of others along ordinal lines. These might be numerical characteristics such as size, price, or number, but also more abstract value-based concepts like perceived healthiness, prestige, or authenticity.

“Ordinal attributes are ones in which we believe in general that there’s a particular order in which they exist,” Haws says. “So in other words, one is better than another.”

“If you order a double-scoop ice cream cone, I might infer that this is an occasion where we’re celebrating or indulging together,” she says. “But if you order a single-scoop ice cream cone, I might instead think, ‘Well we’re enjoying a treat, but we don’t want to get too carried away with it.’ And this is an instance where I’m going to go for the smaller size. It’s much less comfortable to mismatch on that dimension.”

We don’t feel the same pressure to match what the researchers call nominal attributes. These are subjective characteristics, such as shape or flavor. In the donation experiment, the charity choice served as the nominal attribute, and the researchers found that the same effect—matching donation amounts but not charities—persisted.

Employees, too

Furthermore, Haws and her coauthors found that we didn’t just match our friends’ ordinal choices, we matched store employees’, too. When asked, participants who chose to match said a desire to avoid social discomfort drove their decisions.

Haws says her findings can help managers make better decisions about how to shape consumers’ choices through store signage, employee interactions, and other cues.

“There are many different areas in which these underlying nominal-versus-ordinal attributes could play out in the marketplace.”

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