Eating behaviour

  • Created by: Ikra Amin
  • Created on: 27-11-14 11:33


Attitudes consist of 3 components:

  • Affective
  •  Cognitive
  •  Behavioural

Attitudes to food can be very ambivalent, as, for eg, for evolutionary reasons we are drawn to preferring sweet and fatty foods, but our cognitive processes tell us these are less healthy. Both these components then affect our behaviour. Rising levels of obesity suggest that for many the affective is most important.

A number of factors affect our attitudes to food, including evolutionary pressures, culture, social learning, health concerns and mood.

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1) Cultural influences and learning (1st factor)

Cultures differ widely in terms of attitudes to food, for eg, the prevalence of meat eating; exclusion of certain foods, eg pork; fasting, etc. Rozin (82) stated ‘there is  no doubt that the best predictor of the food preferences, habits and attitudes of any particular human would be information about his or her ethnic group...rather than any biological measure that one could imagine’ (Cardwell).

In other words, the evolutionary explanation for eating behaviour is inadequate in explaining cultural differences in attitudes to food

It is clear that eating behaviour is partly based on learned processes, and three main mechanisms of learning have been proposed:

  • Exposure to food
  •  Classical and operant conditioning
  •  Social learning
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Exposure to food


  • Individuals acquire preferences as a result of experience
  • Sociocultural factors have a major influence on the tastes that children acquire
  • Being exposed to a food may increase a person's liking of it

Research evidence


  • Introduced 2 year olds to novel foods over a 6 week period
  • One food presented 20 times, one 10, one 5 and one remained novel
  • Results showed direct relationship between exposure and food preference, with 8-10 needed before preferences began to shift significantly
  • This supports exposure to food because the more times they were exposed to that food, the more they preferred it.
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  • Dowey (1996) - Majority of research measured childs food preference and not actual food intake - may have produced misleading results
  • The relationship between preferences and actual food intake is often assumed and this assumption may be invalid
  • Affects validity - not measurin what it's supposed to
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2) Classical and operant conditioning


  • Certain foods may be paired with positive or negative associations that affects attitudes to the food (e.g. food poisoning=avoid food)
  • In relation to conditioning, offering food as a reward increases preferences for that food
  • Cultures differ as to which foods are used to reward but rewarding behaviour with food is fairly common across cultures where food is freely available.


  • Offered children a certain food either as a reward (if you behave you get a biscuit) or in a non-social situation.
  • Found children more likely to accept foo offered as a reward, than if offered as a snack or non-social situation.
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3) Social learning


  • Childrens attitude to food is affected by their parents attitude to food
  • Children learn what to eat by watching their parents eating habits as they grow
  • Children OBSERVE their parents eating, parents act as role models
  • Observing parent REWARDED by enjoying certain foods, the children learn to imitate these food preferences as they expect to receive similar rewards by doing so.
  • Children show similar preference to that of their parents-VICARIOUS LEARNING


  • Clear relationship between mothers' food intake for most nutrients and that of their pre school children
  • This supports SLT because the study found that children eat what their parents do
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  • Practical applications - SLT strength: use TV to promote healthy eating in children by showing rolle models enjoying nutritious food (e.g. Popeye increases his status by eating spinach). Shows SLT is useful as it can shape a healthy diet. Furthermore, UK banned junk food adverts from TV when programmes aimed at young people are being shown.
  • Does all evidence support SLT? - FISHER AND BIRCH (2000): Found when girls were given a standard lunch and then later allowed to freely snack on food like ice cream and chocolate after there was a link between how much the parents restricted these items at home and how much of the food was eaten during the study. Restrictions of "forbidden food" may actually promote a desire. Problematic as it suggests parents trying to discourage certain foods could actually lead to increased intake rather than reduced intake SLT would predict.
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2) Mood


The extent to which people use food to alter their mood (i.e. some people eat more or some eat less) will often depend on childhood experiences of food (affected by classical and operant conditioning) 

Classical conditioning can contribute to this as when you're a child and get upset, you are given food so now when someone is upset/stressed they eat more. 

Comfort eating may also be related to the way the body experiences stress; some people may eat more and some people may eat less.

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AO2 Research evidence

Garg Et Al (07)

  • Found p's watching a sad film (Love Story) consumed 28% more popcorn than p's watching a happy one. Mood ratings indicated mood was affected by film content.
  • This shows that a low mood does affect eating by increasing calorie consumption.

Corsica and Spring (08)

  • High carb foods are more rewarding than protein for people experiencing low food.
  • This may be for biological reasons; carbos can lead to an increase in serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to improve mood. 

CONTRADICTORY RESEARCH: Fisher and Birch (2000)

  • Contradicts the mood as a factor because the girls mood was fine. The link wasn't with mood, but with how much parents had forbidden this item. It supports learning instead.
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Other IDA/AO2

Issues - contradictory evidence, does it suggest methodological issues or individual differences?

Practical applications - if sweet food improves mood, potential offenders can be given chocolate to avoid aggression.

Reductionism vs holism - social approach attempts a more holistic approach, but this causes issues of how to isolate and investigate just 1 factor that influences eating. 

IDA-Reductionism - mood and comfort eating may not be biological or through nature as some evidence suggests and may instead been learned (through nurture)

IDA - gender bias in research. A great deal of research into mood and eating focuses on women. However, women are more likely to be dieters, have a greater incidence of eating disorders and often have a pre-occupation with food because of these things.  This is a problem because such theories and research related to it will have a female oriented view of eating because women are pre-dominantly studied. This gives an unrepresentative view of eating behaviour across both genders.

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Other IDA/AO2

IDA-Determinism linked to evolutionary approach - certain foods have been found to provide substances we need to regulate our mood biologically-e.g. carbs increase the release of endorphins. This is threfore an example of biology determining mood via food choice. Furthermore, this also supports the evolutionary theory as there seems to be a link between negative mood and carb craving and sugar/fat seem to regulate mood. 

IDA PARA (gender bias and generalisability is 1 possible IDA): There's gender bias in the research into mood, most of the research into mood and eating involves women. However, women are more likely to be dieters, have a greater incidence of eating disorders and often have a pre-occupation with food because of these things. Also this factor is an incomplete explanation as it focuses on just mood being a result of your eating preferences, ignoring other factors such as individual differences. Corsica et al focuses mainly on our biology, suggesting high carb foods were beneficial when experiencing a low mood as they increase serotonin. 

IDA - Reductionist/nature/nurture): nature nurture is it just learning or can it be due to biology as well? It is not fully reductionist. Refers to childhood (nurture) and also serotonin levels (biological) so it's not 100% biological.

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