Eating (and overeating) as sport and spectacle is not a new phenomenon. And while there are a select few who actually earn a living doing it, new research says men’s desire to gorge themselves is more an act of braggadocio than anything else. In a study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers found that men will eat more when they have an audience because they believe it makes them look better. Study co-author Kevin Kniffin told Fast Company that “Even if men aren’t thinking about it, eating more than a friend tends to be understood as a demonstration of virility and strength.”
To figure that out Kniffin had his subjects eat, either with a cheering audience or in a more typical and fan-free setting. In both cases eating more netted the gluttons nothing more than a plastic medal worth $1.29. Men ate four times as much when they had a cheering section. Women, however, actually ate less when other people were watching. That second part of those findings may seem obvious. Past studies have found women’s eating habits are seriously impacted by social pressure. But men’s proclivity for stuffing their faces as a power move is a bit more interesting. Especially since women are actually pretty grossed out by it.
Another part of the study, conducted by Cornell professor Brian Wansink, asked participants to rate the attractiveness of male and female eaters. While males were quite taken with their fellow men’s Homer Simpson impressions, females “[did] not appear to be favorably impressed by the feats of overeating” according to the study’s authors.
The researchers weren’t able to precisely pin down why this is the case, but suspect it all comes from a desire to show off, saying, “in the end, this exhibitionist eating may say less about American eating habits and more about American ego habits.”