Healthy or Unhealthy Food Perceptions and Narcissism

NarcissusUnassailable definitions of healthy food and healthy eating are elusive. Is whole milk a healthy beverage? Or one that should be banned from school lunches? We have great sympathy for the task that the scientific advisory committee for the 2025 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans has taken on. But what if perceptions of healthy and unhealthy food have a meaningful relationship with narcissism?

Two researchers in Psychology & Marketing offer new experimental data to support this notion.

Two Different Perspectives

Through a series of three experiments, Renaud Lunardo and Jana Gross found that perceptions of healthy and unhealthy food function differently in different contexts for people with a personality trait of narcissism.

In a social context, their emphasis is on protecting the self-image they project. God forbid someone should see me eating those fries.

But in a private context, people with a narcissism focus more on the benefits that healthy food can offer to them. Lunardo and Gross explain:

“Narcissists’ perceptions of food and subsequent consumption intentions differ from those of their counterparts. Specifically, our results show that narcissists tend to perceive more benefits in food and consequently exhibit more consumption intentions toward that food

“Perceiving a food product as healthier, regardless of its actual healthiness, appears to encourage its consumption.”

A Tool for Marketing

More than anything, this research points to the great utility of labeling food as healthy for food marketers. Much more than food policy wonks, food marketers understand how to appeal to the narcissistic impulses we may have and thus to lead us toward consuming ever more of their products.

There’s rich irony in the energy that food policy advocates – and even FDA – put toward developing health claims that serve to sell us more food. We doubt it does much to improve the health of the population. In fact, it might do just the opposite.

Click here for the study by Lunardo and Gross, here and here for more on health claims for food.

Narcissus, woodblock print by Koshiro Onchi / WikiArt

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October 29, 2023