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Are You Hungry or Just a People-Pleaser?

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If you’ve having trouble losing weight and can’t figure out why, you might want to ask yourself if you’re a people-pleaser.

A new study suggests you might be overeating in certain social situations just to make those around you feel more comfortable.

Turning down treats when others are indulging is always hard, but Julie Exline, a psychologist from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, said it poses special problems for people-pleasers. If they feel a sense of social pressure to indulge, they’ll often eat more to match what others around them are eating.

Exline led a two-part study of 101 college students, who first completed a questionnaire that assessed characteristics for people-pleasing, also known as “sociotropy.” Among other behaviors, students high in people-pleasing tended to put others’ needs before their own, worried about hurting others, and were sensitive to criticism.

After answering these questions along with some other background measures, students were seated with a female actor who was posing as a second participant in the study. The experimenter handed a bowl of M&M candies to the actor, who took a small handful of candies before offering the bowl to the participant. After taking the candies, participants reported how many they took and why. Researchers also assessed the number of candies taken.

The people-pleasers were associated with taking more candy, both in this experiment, published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, and in a second study involving recall of real-life eating situations.

“People-pleasers feel more intense pressure to eat when they believe that their eating will help another person feel more comfortable,” Dr. Exline said in a press release. “Those who overeat in order to please others tend to regret their choices later. It doesn’t feel good to give in to social pressures.”

She also said that although this particular study looked at eating habits, the same behaviors can carry over to other areas of an individual’s life. For example, people-pleasers may feel anxious or guilty if they outperform others in academics, athletics or relationships. In addition, because they have a strong desire to avoid posing a threat to others, they often put a lot of energy into trying to keep everyone else comfortable.

“They don’t want to rock the boat or upset the sense of social harmony,” said Dr. Exline. “Almost everyone has been in a situation in which they’ve felt this pressure, but people-pleasers seem especially sensitive to it.”

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